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Massive Richmond, Ind. fire prompts evacuations and concerns

massive cloud of black smoke comes from a fire and hangs over the city
Courtesy Kevin Shook
Global Media Enterprise
A massive plume of black smoke over Richmond, Ind. Tuesday, April 11, 2023 from a fire at a plastics-housing facility.

Schools were closed Wednesday and some residents are still being warned to take precautions after a massive industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., Tuesday. Smoke could be seen for miles and people nearby were told to evacuate.

Investigators are still trying to sort out what caused the enormous fire across 14 acres at a former factory site full of plastics. The Richmond Fire Chief said some fires were still burning Wednesday morning, though the city said they are under control. Evacuation orders were expected to remain in place through Wednesday.

"The Richmond Fire Department is the responsible agency but is being assisted by multiple surrounding agencies within and around the county," the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency said. "Agencies at the scene include Indiana Fire Marshal’s Office, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and several local departments."

A Community Help Line is available at 765-973-9300 and the city of Richmond's website.

The city reports two warehouses "containing large amounts of chipped, shredded, and bulk recycled plastic" caught fire around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

"Because of the nature of the fire and the fuel it is burning, it is expected to continue burning and producing smoke, soot, and ash for several more days," the city said.

Richmond officials held a news conference Wednesday morning, you can watch it here.

According to the city's website, "The site was previously a business that collected and packaged recyclables for reselling. Plastics were stored inside and outside the buildings. The business owner has previously been cited by the Unsafe Building Commission for various violations."

Indiana Public Broadcasting's Rebecca Thiele reports the buildings were formerly owned by My Way Trading — which was cited for several violations in the past, including creating a fire hazard.

The plume of smoke could be seen as far away as Trenton, Ohio.Kevin Shook of Global Media Enterprise captured the fire from above as it was burning.

No toxins detected, but smoke can be harmful

Benny and Patti Young live on the east side of Richmond. They watched as the smoke came their direction.

"What we're thinking is, 'My gosh, what happens when this bad smoke stuff starts coming down into our — we'd better be thinking about leaving or something,' " Benny Young said.

Young said they decided to stay put, but they kept their windows closed for most of the evening. He said the smoke passed over their area and they only noticed a light smell.

The cloud moved toward New Paris, Ohio, where residents reported black debris falling from the sky. Safety officials warned people not to touch the debris or mow over it.

A coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on the scene Wednesday and said no toxic compounds had been detected in the air. He did say, however, the smoke is harmful because it contains particulate matter that could contain toxins, which would be bad to inhale, so people should avoid the smoke.

The EPA says it's testing to see if smoke from the burnt plastic could contain cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, but for now, only particle pollution has been found. Exposure to it can still cause lung and heart problems, especially for people with conditions like asthma or COPD.

Air sampling continues and more ground-level smoke is expected as the fire cools.

Mayor Dave Snow shared a map of the evacuation zone online.

Snow says the city bought part of the property from My Way Trading to hold the
business owner accountable for cleaning up the site.

"They are still accountable for everything on this site, for every bit of the mess on this site," he said. "They're responsible for the fire that has happened and all of the damage that's ensued afterward."

WFMG radio host Dave Donaldson was on-air when the fire broke out. He says the station quickly shifted operations to provide regular updates throughout the afternoon and evening.

"We were going in pretty much every other song; we were stopping for about two to three minutes to talk about what was happening, (saying) 'Hey, this is what we know.' And as we were getting information from our local sources, we were pumping it out," Donaldson said.

He says listeners who were calling or sending questions during the broadcast were most concerned about the air quality. Now, he says the questions are turning to accountability.

He describes driving near the fire site after getting off the air.

"It was dusk ... You could look over to where the fire was at and it looked like the sunrise was coming out of this black cloud."

Donaldson attended a Wednesday morning news conference near the site.

"You could see the charred remains of the building, and the thing I can tell you is, I equate it to the smells of the burn pits overseas (in Afghanistan; in Africa) — having dealt with those, it's a flashback memory of smelling everything I did overseas. It's the burning smell of plastic, it was pretty bad closer to it."

Residents forced to evacuate were able to shelter at area churches. Volunteers and the American Red Cross staffed the shelters.

utility workers in cherry pickers work through smokey haze
Rebecca Thiele
Indiana Public Broadcasting
Utility workers in Richmond, Ind. Wednesday, working through a haze of smoke from the fire.

Wendy Snyder and her family live only a block away from the fire. They spent the night at the Oak Park Pentecostal Church where the American Red Cross is providing shelter and supplies. She and her husband didn’t get much sleep. Snyder says she’s glad her family, friends and neighbors all seem to be safe.

"We are glad that everybody had a place to go to. For us, we're still a little crazy, but we're doing okay," she told Indiana Public Broadcasting.

They were told it could be at least three days before they can go home, IPB reports.

People outside the evacuation zone were encouraged to keep their windows closed, keep pets inside, and turn off HVAC units.

Only one injury has been reported — a firefighter was treated and released for an ankle injury.

Richmond is near the Ohio border, about 25 miles northwest of Oxford and 70 miles east of Indianapolis.

Indiana Public Broadcasting's Rebecca Thiele contributed to this report.

This story may be updated.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.
Rebecca Thiele