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Fire under control in Richmond, smell and smoke could linger for days

Grey smoke rises from parts of a mostly extinguished fire, as fire trucks spray water and excavators dig through rubble amid piles and piles of melted plastic.
Kevin Shook
Global Media Alliance
Crews continued to work at the site of a massive fire at a plastic recycling warehouse in Richmond, Indiana, on Thursday. The fire is about 90 percent extinguished.

The fire that started at a massive plastic storage facility in Richmond, Indiana, on Tuesday, is now under control, officials said on Thursday night.

"The fire was announced extinguished at 8:44 p.m. on April 13th, two days after starting. Our fire department is to be highly commended for their swift and brave action. We're now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples, and determining when the evacuation order can be lifted. Our goal is to get people back into their homes as soon as possible. We'll have more information to share once it becomes available," said the statement from the city of Richmond.

Officials had said earlier on Thursday afternoon that they had made significant progress that day in putting out the blaze — they also said that shifting winds and the cooling fire meant that people who previously weren't affected by the smoke were starting to experience it.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries trying to put out the fire.

Local leaders are still urging people who see or smell smoke to close their windows and stay inside.

They said in an update Friday morning that because of the nature of the fire and the material it has burned, it is expected to continue smoldering and producing smoke, soot, or burnt plastic smell for several more days even though it is under control.

Hundreds of people who live within a half-mile radius of the fire are still being asked to stay evacuated from their homes.

Schools are closed again Friday.

A 24/7 shelter and food pantry are available for displaced people at a nearby church. A local kennel has offered to watch people's dogs for free.

Richmond police will escort people who live in the evacuation zone back home to retrieve items they need. Residents who need those services can call 765-973-9300.

Meanwhile, environmental professionals have been monitoring the air in the region, including across the border in Ohio in the village of New Paris in Preble County.

Jason Sewell with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said his contractors have taken more than 700 discrete air quality measurements since Tuesday.

"We are seeing particulate matter, which is to be expected when smoke is present," he said. "But we have not detected any of the other compounds that we're analyzing for at this time."

High particulate matter levels in the air can be especially dangerous for people with lung disease, health experts said.

The other compounds being tested for by the EPA include carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, benzene, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, and mineral acids (H2SO4 and HCl).

EPA has received one air sample result, taken in real-time at the location of the fire in a smoky area on April 12 that does show volatile organic compounds are present. The agency says that that result is more representative of what firefighters might be exposed to and not what the broader community would have been exposed to after the fire.

"Volatile organic compounds are a class of chemicals that include many distinct ingredients and many consumer products that we are handling on a day-to-day basis, for instance, gasoline, many cleaners, polishes, and other things. So we do come into contact with these materials on a routine basis," Sewell said.

EPA also has conducted 24-hour air sampling starting on Wednesday, April 12 at a local hospital and anticipates those results in the next couple of days. Sewell said those results will be more representative of what the broader community could have been exposed to since the fire started.

US EPA Federal on-scene coordinator Jason Sewell (left) and Richmond Mayor Dave Snow (right) speak to the media at a Thursday press conference.
Chris Welter
US EPA Federal on-scene coordinator Jason Sewell (left) and Richmond Mayor Dave Snow (right) speak to the media at a Thursday press conference.

Sewell also confirmed that falling debris from the building fire containing chrysotile asbestos has been documented.

"The worst thing you could do would be to mow and break up that material and aerosolize it where you may inhale it. So, please, don't disturb the debris. For now, avoid mowing until we come out with more instructions on outdoor cleanup," he said.

Sewell said he is working with local and state officials to develop a plan to address falling debris. He also said debris from the fire has been reported in Ohio but not confirmed by his agency.

Richmond city officials also said they're collecting surface water samples from the Middle and East Fork of the Whitewater River.

"To date, all of the samples for which we readily have results for from the river and tributaries have come back with a normal background range with no elevated differences between upstream and downstream sites," Richmond Sanitation District Director Pat Smoker said. "We have monitored the river for several miles south, and no fish or wildlife kills have been found."

The Whitewater River watershed includes some parts of Butler, Darke, Hamilton, and Preble counties. The Ohio EPA didn't respond to WYSO's request for comment by publication asking if similar testing is being done on the parts of the Whitewater River watershed in Ohio.

Richmond's City attorney A.J. Sickmann also spoke at the press conference. He said after the fire is extinguished, then begins a long clean-up process and investigation into its cause.

"Responsibility remains with the person that created the problem," Sickmann said. "Now, from a pragmatic perspective, the city is obviously involved and going to be cleaning this up. We're not going to let it sit in that state. It's going to be a process. But there will be an accountability component to this on the back end."

The 14-acre property where the fire started has a documented history of fire safety concerns. Some of the legal documents related to the property have been provided to the media and the public by the City of Richmond and can be found here.

The property owner, Seth Smith, has not responded to multiple requests for an interview from the media since the fire started this week but he has been in touch with fire investigators, according to Richmond Mayor Dave Snow.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

Updated: April 14, 2023 at 12:14 PM EDT
This story was updated to reflect that the Richmond Fire Department now says the fire is "under control" as opposed to extinguished.
Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.