RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — An evacuation order affecting more than 1,000 people was expected to remain in place through Wednesday around a large industrial fire in an Indiana city near the Ohio border where crews worked through the night to douse piles of burning plastics, authorities said.
Multiple fires that began burning Tuesday afternoon were still burning Wednesday afternoon within about 14 acres of various types of plastics stored both inside and outside buildings at the former factory site in Richmond, 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, Richmond fire Chief Tim Brown said.
He said the fire is contained within the old factory site but not under control and the firefighting effort is ongoing. Brown said the fire response team has a very tentative goal of finishing up dousing the flames by Saturday morning, but added Wednesday afternoon “that’s a guess.”
Brown said their goal is to put out the fires, not let them burn, and said rumors to the contrary were incorrect.
“We are attempting to put the fire out. We are not letting it burn. Evidently there’s some misinformation out there that we’re letting it burn,” he said.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 people who live within a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) of the plant were told to leave after the fire began, said David Hosick, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Brown, the fire chief, said it’s unclear how many people have been evacuated from around the site. People outside that radius who live downwind of the fire were advised to keep windows closed and pets inside.
Brown said the evacuation order would remain in place through Wednesday and perhaps into Wednesday night, depending on how much progress crews make in putting out the flames. He said the fire’s cause remains under investigation and the only injury has been a firefighter who suffered a minor ankle injury overnight Tuesday.
Some Richmond residents forced from their homes took shelter starting Tuesday afternoon at Oak Park Pentecostals, after families picking up their children from the church’s daycare realized they could not return home, said executive pastor Jesse Arthur. He expects the church’s expansive gymnasium, with bathrooms, showers and the daycare — and water and hot food provided by the Red Cross and residents — could fill up Wednesday evening.
“I think most everybody was exhausted. Long day. Traumatic. Everything’s up in the air,” Arthur told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Terry Snyder Jr. spent a restless night at the church Tuesday night with his parents, who are worried about their home of five years. All three were coughing from the smoke as both Snyder and his mother, Wendy, have asthma, while his father, Terry Snyder Sr., has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“I didn’t sleep all night. I was nervous,” Wendy Snyder said. “… I’ve never been displaced from my home.”
Aaron Stevens, a Richmond police officer who lives six blocks from the plant, remained at his home Wednesday despite the evacuation order and watching ash fall on his deck and backyard. His sister, who lives closer to the fires, was staying with him to escape the smoke and Stevens said he’s keeping an eye on the changing updates around the smoke.
State and federal regulators were at the scene to monitor air quality and other environmental impacts at the site, which local officials said has been used to store plastics and other materials for recycling or resale.
Jason Sewell, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency has been doing roving air sampling outside the evacuation area and into part of nearby Ohio, but no toxic compounds have been detected.
He stressed, however, that smoke is harmful to inhale because it contains particulate matter of different sizes and can contain toxics, and residents should avoid the smoke.
Sewell said air sampling was continuing Wednesday in Richmond, a city of 35,000 residents.
President Joe Biden, who has been visiting Northern Ireland and Ireland, spoke by phone to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and offered his support and any additional federal assistance needed to respond to the fire, the White House said.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the federal agency was working closely with its state and local partners in responding to and monitoring the fire. He said an EPA team would be collecting samples of debris in the area Wednesday “to determine whether asbestos-containing materials may have left the site.”
“So we’re following the situation very closely and will continue to provide the community with any assistance that they need,” he said in the nation’s capitol before speaking about tough new automobile pollution control limits.
Because of smoke still wafting from the fire, Indiana’s environmental agency issued an air quality advisory Wednesday for two eastern Indiana counties, Wayne and Randolph, warning that forecasts call for elevated levels of fine soot particles in the air. That advisory was later extended through Thursday.
Indiana’s state fire marshal, Steve Jones, said residents need to get away from the smoke plumes, especially elderly people with respiratory problems.
“There’s a host of different chemicals that plastics give off when they’re on fire. And so it’s concerning,” Jones said.
Pastor Ken Harris at Bethesda Worship Center in Richmond said the church housed several families, about 20 people total, Tuesday night after evacuation orders were issued, but those families were later moved to a separate, larger facility about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away.
“We gave them a safe space to breathe and collect their thoughts,” Harris said Wednesday as dark gray smoke billowed in the distance through the clear-blue sky beyond the church’s windows.
Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said Wednesday that the plastics recycling site had been under a city order to clean up and remediate the complex, but said the business owner had ignored that order. Snow called that person “a negligent business owner.”
Callahan reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press video journalist Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.