Richmond firefighters aggressively attacked burning plastic when they arrived shortly after 2:40 p.m. Tuesday, April 11 at a facility known as a fire hazard.

Overcoming limited access to the burning pile of the 358 N.W. F St. complex, the firefighters tried to quickly gain control, but strong winds helped the fire jump to another plastics pile.

Tim Brown

“Once it jumped piles, it created a large amount of black smoke, then all of a sudden, the black smoke came right to the ground and engulfed us,” Richmond Fire Department Chief Tim Brown said. “I didn’t want our people to be in that atmosphere. It’s very dangerous, it could be very volatile, the smoke could be volatile, and so we decided to back out real quick.”

That put firefighters into a defensive mode with the fire spreading across the 13.8 acres crammed with plastics. They fought to protect neighboring properties while the fire did exactly what fire officials knew it would: emit a plume of black, toxic smoke as it burned for nearly three days.

The complex, which also includes properties at 308 and 310 N.W. F St., was declared a fire hazard four years ago because of the excessive amount of plastics stacked inside and outside of six structures totaling about 255,000 square feet, insufficient equipment access to the complex and ingress into buildings, and a lack of fire detection and suppression equipment.

RFD studied fire models, including smoke simulations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with four wind directions, that represented exactly what would happen — and what did happen — if a fire occurred. It enabled pre-planning that accounted for the fast-burning plastics; the insufficient, 6-inch water mains; and the toxic smoke.

Kelly Shaw Spitler, who lives on Randolph Street, went outside April 11 to take pictures of the billowing, black smoke that was visible from Marion County to the west and Muncie to the north and extended for miles eastward. She also heard propane tanks explode.

“It was really, really dark and black,” she said. “Later on, I heard explosions. I mean they would make my dog bark because they would shake the floor.”

Once firefighters pulled back from the expanding fire, they poured water from aerial units onto it, trying to push it toward the center. Throughout the afternoon Tuesday, they made incremental progress on that and, more importantly, kept the fire from spreading to a 500-gallon propane tank and nearby businesses and homes.

“It’s about the only way we can keep control of it, is putting as much water on it as fast as we can,” Brown said about using the aerials.

Brown said firefighters accessed the fire scene any way they could to provide water and protect surrounding structures. From the north, the hoses stretched through yards and across the railroad tracks. The access and 6-inch water mains provided challenges. Brown said Indiana American Water cooperates with RFD for all fires, and the company pumped as much water as possible to the fire location. The mains when installed were just not meant for the type of facility that caught fire, Brown said.

“We knew going into this when it happened that we didn’t have enough water here to put this fire out, just by the size of the buildings, the contents of the buildings and the size of our mains,” said Brown, who noted the buildings were jammed “ceiling to floor and wall to wall” with plastics and truck trailers on site were also filled with plastics.

A track hoe pulls a truck trailer away from the fire April 11 to create a fire break. Photos by Mike Emery

Off-duty RFD firefighters arrived at the scene before being called. Richmond also received immediate assistance from Boston, Centerville, Fountain City and Cambridge City on site, and other volunteer departments covered stations that sent equipment to the fire scene.

Firefighters worked around the clock, with personnel from all three RFD shifts working together, to contain the edges. Once the fire was contained, track hoes were used to pull back rubble and expose buried fire for trucks to extinguish. Construction companies provided equipment beginning Tuesday when they pulled truck trailers across North West F Street to create a fire break.

Brown described the fire as more than 90% extinguished Thursday afternoon then declared it under control Thursday night. Fire flares continued to erupt with firefighters on site to quickly extinguish those.

“If there is fire in between these plastic bales anywhere and it does break out, it’s going to grow quickly, it’s going to burn hot and we want to be here on top of it so we don’t have another scenario like we had,” Brown said.

The chief had nothing but praise for the team that worked long hours.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team that we have,” he said. “We’re all a team. When it comes down to this type of emergency, we’re all together.”

Families of firefighters and other RFD personnel assisted by collecting drink and food donations at Station 1 and organizing meals. Brown said the firefighters appreciate the community’s response.

“I can’t thank our community enough,” Brown said. “We were overwhelmed with emotions because there was a steady stream of people coming into Station 1 unloading cases of water, unloading cases of Gatorade, donating money for food. We didn’t have to worry about anything like that.”

Two firefighters did experience minor medical problems. A Richmond firefighter sprained an ankle Tuesday night, and a Dublin firefighter was overcome by heat Wednesday. Both were quickly treated.

Frank Lahmann, the owner of Stevens Wire Products located just across North West F Street from the fire, said his building didn’t even have scorch marks.

“They are definitely heroes, for sure,” he said about the firefighters. “That fire was so intense that I heard you could feel the heat at the railroad tracks that are behind my building. They parked a fire truck in the street right in front of our building, and they fought the fire from the front of our building and they put water on our building and they protected it. Words can’t say how much I appreciate their efforts.”

Lahmann, whose company employs about 25 people, wasn’t confident Stevens’ building would survive.

“Everyone was really worried it was going to be a loss, and the fact that we’re still standing is just a testament to their efforts and what they put into this,” he said. “It’s incredible.”

Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones and members of his department arrived, as did Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to assist RFD with the lengthy investigation into the fire’s cause. He also complimented the firefighters.

“They did a great job against this fire because of the nature of the contents of the building,” he said. “It was a fast-growing fire. They got in, surrounded it, cut it off from residential neighborhoods. It was going to be a total loss, but it could have grown further than just these buildings here. Kudos to the fire department and their efforts, their tactical decisions to cut this fire off.”

Jon Duke, deputy director of Wayne County Emergency Management Agency, credited the firefighters with a “heroic, heroic stop.” Mayor Dave Snow said firefighters did a “phenomenal job” containing the fire.

Brown said that when confronted with adverse conditions firefighters strive to save a life or save property.

“Our guys did a tremendous job,” he said. “Everybody did exactly what they needed to and how they needed to do it. They were professional about it; they were aggressive about it. They weren’t taking no for an answer when it comes to this fire.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

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