At an afternoon press conference on Thursday, state and city officials said that while progress is being made, they are not ready to allow evacuated residents back into homes surrounding the site of Tuesday’s fire. An order to shelter in place remains active as shifting wind directions and smoke patterns mean that even more of Richmond is potentially exposed to health and environmental concerns associated with the plastics and other materials being burned. In the uncertainty, schools and organizations have already started canceling plans for Friday; Richmond Community Schools has announced they will be closed.

Richmond Fire Department has the industrial fire more than 90% extinguished. Trackhoes are turning over debris with fire trucks ready to extinguish the exposed hot spots. Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown hopes to have the fire “98 or 99 percent out” by sundown Thursday. The department is limiting operations in the hot zone after dark out of safety concerns.

Brown said that RFD and assisting departments did a “remarkable job” containing the fire to the single complex. He also thanks the community for its support with donations of water, Gatorade and food for firefighters as they worked.

A debris field harbors remaining hot spots that firefighters are working to fully extinguish. Photo by Mike Emery

Rubble now remains where the plastic recycling and sales facility once stood. The Stevens Wire Products building across North West F Street was unharmed. Owner Frank Lahmann said the firefighters are “heroes” for the work they did. He said a truck was parked in front with firefighters working to extinguish the fire while protecting the building. “Words can’t say how much I appreciate their efforts,” Lahmann said.

Trying to get people home

Brown said it’s unknown when the evacuation order might be lifted. The fire will need to be extinguished and smoke plume eliminated. Christine Stinson, executive director of the Wayne County Health Department, said air and water testing data, some of which has not yet come back from labs, will need analysis to determine when it will be safe for residents to return home.

Jason Sewell of the Environmental Protection Agency said a sample of debris located outside of the fire zone did test positive for asbestos. Anyone finding debris should leave it alone until more information is available, he said, adding the worst thing someone could do is mow over the debris and break it up. Air sample tests are finding particulates as expected from smoke, Sewell said, but he could not yet answer if residents have breathed cancer-causing elements from the smoke. He said testing equipment placed near the main Reid Health campus has been sampling air slowly over a 24-hour period and they hope to have results of that analysis on Friday.

Burned debris lines a lot as smoke rises in the background. Photo by Mike Emery

Pat Smoker, the city’s sanitation director, said that booms have been placed in the Whitewater River to collect soot and debris from the water. However, Smoker said river water tests have not shown any contamination from water runoff at the fire scene, and their monitoring of waterways several miles south have not seen any fish kills or other impacts. Smoker said just a “trickle” of water has been entering storm sewers, and the sanitary district is ready to divert runoff water from the scene to be isolated at the treatment plant if that becomes necessary.

Assistance available

Mayor Dave Snow said that the city continues efforts to assist residents displaced by the fire. A list of resources is available on the city’s website for food, shelter and necessities such as toiletries. Calls to the city hotline at 765-973-9300 also can provide assistance or get questions answered.

Anyone needing to visit a home inside the evacuation zone to retrieve vital items such as medications or work clothes should call the number first; escorts into the zone will be made available, leaving from the Dollar General parking lot on North West Fifth Street, according to Wayne County Emergency Management Deputy Director Jon Duke. Residents needing help with pets should call Abington Pines Kennels at 765-855-1000. Animals must be current on vaccinations and residents must provide food, Duke said.

Snow also reported the fire’s second known injury, saying a Dublin firefighter suffered from the heat and was treated at the fire scene. One RFD firefighter previously sustained a minor ankle injury.

Questions swirl about responsibility, opportunities for prevention

Questions about what led to the fire, who is ultimately responsible for the cleanup and costs, and how these events will affect the community in the long term remain to be answered. Officials said they are still fully focused on getting past the current emergency situation and helping those displaced by the fire to get home.

Snow and A.J. Sickmann, the city attorney, were questioned about the city’s responsibility for the on-site plastic as owner of two-thirds of the complex. Snow continues to blame Seth Smith, owner of the plastic recycling and sales company, that put the plastic throughout the complex, calling the site a “colossal mess.”

A March 3, 2020 court order upholding the Unsafe Building Commission order. Supplied

He said Smith disregarded the public’s safety when ignoring Unsafe Building Commission and court orders to clean the property. The city would not have businesses create safety hazards and then slap taxpayers with what Snow has said was expected to be a multi-million-dollar cleanup cost.

The city designated the property as a fire hazard at least four years ago when pursuing the Unsafe Building order. It cited the stacks of plastic, lack of access between stacks and lack of fire detection and suppression equipment.

The city took ownership of two of three parcels in the complex and reached agreement with Smith, who ships the plastic to foreign countries, that he would sell and move plastic from the facility, something Sickmann said was happening, but not to add plastic. The city then monitored that progress.

Sickmann said removing all the plastic would be a “massive undertaking” and the city’s timeline for Smith was “as soon as possible.”

When asked why the city did not clean out the plastic, Sickmann said the situation was complicated because a bank had interest in the plastic as collateral, meaning the city would be disposing of the bank’s property.

Other daunting factors the city faced were the cost, the labor to remove the plastic and where and how to dispose of the plastic.

Snow said the city is tracking costs associated with the fire and would seek accountability from Smith. Sickmann said after the fire is out the process of seeking civil penalties based on the Unsafe Building and court orders would be explored.

A fire investigator has contacted Smith. Sickmann indicated Smith essentially said that he had expected someone to come to his residence and told the investigator to speak with Smith’s attorney.

Snow said the city hopes residents are complying with the evacuation order for their own safety. He said cleanup kits are being prepared for residents for when they are permitted to return home.

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Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.

Chris Hardie is the owner and publisher of the Western Wayne News.