This article contains a series of breaking news updates on Wednesday April 12 about the industrial structure fire in northwest Richmond. It is based on reporting from the scene by Mike Emery, research and reporting from Millicent Martin Emery and Chris Hardie, and contributed images and videos from community members. As with any rapidly unfolding emergency situation, some information that was believed to be correct at the time may turn out to be inaccurate or incomplete. Additional coverage will appear in an upcoming issue of the Western Wayne News.
6:24 PM: Mayor announces press conference
Mayor Dave Snow posted on Twitter that the fire is still active, that environmental hazard assessment is still happening, and that a press conference is planned for Thursday at 2 p.m.
5:40 PM: Red Cross liaison jumps from tornado scene to fire assistance
Richmond’s Dana Mollenkopf was volunteering Tuesday afternoon in Whiteland, Indiana, helping tornado victims, when he started receiving texts about a serious fire in his hometown.
Red Cross asked Mollenkopf, who serves as a government operations liaison, to return to Richmond to help evacuees.
A reception area was established at Bethesda Worship Center on Peacock Road, offering snacks and water, and helping people make connections while a residential emergency shelter was being established at Oak Park Pentecostals, 1920 Chester Blvd.
Mollenkopf met with those who stopped by to determine if they had special circumstances or if they could connect with friends and family for the night. For instance, one gentleman stopped at Bethesda before planning to seek a hotel room because of his medical needs, but he soon needed to go to the hospital, and someone transported him.
A large family eventually found someone to take them in for one night, but Mollenkopf said they might return for longer-term lodging. The residential shelter opened at about 10 p.m. Tuesday and hosted one family of three who lived a couple blocks from the fire scene and lacked transportation.
Oak Park remained open Wednesday afternoon as a shelter. Mollenkopf expected the need for it might rise in the next few days as funds run low for those who chose to immediately check into a motel, or if officials begin more strictly enforcing evacuation orders.
5:34 PM: Additional environmental hazard testing and mitigation efforts
Wayne County EMA director Matthew Cain communicated at an EMA board meeting just now that a group from Indiana University has arrived with air monitoring equipment to supplement EPA efforts. The extra help has facilitated testing in Darke and Preble counties.
IDEM has placed booms and hay on the East Fork of Whitewater River to prevent particulates and debris from flowing down river.
5:32 PM: All Reid Health facilities to open Thursday
A Reid Health spokesperson tells the Western Wayne News that “all Reid facilities will be open normal business hours tomorrow. We will continue monitoring and post any updates to our Facebook page.”
5:30 PM: Firefighting rainbow
A rainbow formed under the water being sprayed from an aerial firefighting truck at the scene of the fire. Photo by WWN reporter Mike Emery.
5:22 PM: Air quality alert from the National Weather Service
The National Weather Service has issued an air quality alert for Richmond. “Fine particle levels are expected to be elevated due in part to smoke from a fire at a recycling plastics plant in Richmond. Weather conditions will continue to spread the smoke. Conditions should improve overnight and Thursday.”
The alert goes on to provide recommended actions that the public can take to reduce fine particle levels:
- Avoid burning wood in fireplaces or wood-fired boilers and any unnecessary fires.
- Reduce activity time outdoors to reduce unhealthy exposure to fine particulates.
- Don’t let your engine idle.
4:36 PM: Chamber reschedules hiring fair
The Wayne County Chamber of Commerce announced the rescheduling of its hiring fair to Friday April 21, in the Wellness Center on Earlham College’s campus. The event schedule will remain the same for the new date.
Earlier in the day the Chamber sent out a survey to its members asking about the impact of the fire on their businesses and what ongoing concerns or needs the Chamber can help with.
3:05 PM: Richmond Community Schools closes for Thursday
All RCS schools will be closed tomorrow, Thursday, April 13, 2023. There will be NO e-learning and everyone is encouraged to follow the shelter in place order. Faculty and staff are not required to work from home & are not permitted in RCS buildings.
1:51 PM: Important contact information
Transportation: If you need transportation away from an affected area, call (765) 983-7580. The city has a bus that will pick you up.
Shelter: If you are in need of shelter, call Wayne County EMA at (765) 973-9399 and they will direct you to an open shelter.
Health concerns: If you have concerns about your health, contact the Wayne County Health Department’s 24/7 hotline at (765) 937-9300).
The EPA’s website about this incident is at https://response.epa.gov/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=16003.
1:44 PM: Video of morning press conference
Whitewater Community Television has posted video from this morning’s press conference with city officials.
1:31 PM: Wayne County Emergency Management updates
The Wayne County EMA issued an updated version of their questions and answers, with these helpful clarifications:
- Is wearing masks in the area of the fire helpful? “Cloth and surgical masks do filter out the larger particulate matter, however finer particles would require an N95-type mask. Per the Wayne County Health Department, it is just much safer to remain out of the area and if you find yourself in the plume of smoke, remove yourself from the hazardous condition and seek safety.”
- What has been found in the air monitoring so far? “The US EPA is responsible for the air monitoring in the area. Their samples are picking up particulate matter (smoke), as expected during a fire. The agency is also monitoring the air for products of combustion expected from a plastics fire including particulates, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, benzene, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, mineral acids (H2SO4 and HCl). So far, they have not detected any of those specific toxic compounds in their air monitoring. Testing is continuous and on-going around the clock. The EPA has five (5) on-scene coordinators on site.”
- When will it be safe to return to the area? “Unfortunately, we are unable to provide an exact time or estimate when evacuation orders will be lifted. As air monitoring results come back from lab testing, we are hoping to be able to allow residents to return to their homes.”
The Wayne County Health Department has set up a phone line for anyone that has additional questions or to triage concerns from the public. The number is 765-973-9300 and the department says it will staff it 24 hours a day for the time being.
1:15 PM: Air quality testing update
Jason Sewell of the Environmental Protection Agency in Indianapolis said earlier today that air-quality testing has been occurring at ground level since Tuesday, in shelter in place areas and into the New Paris, Ohio area. There have not been readings of dangerous agents such as stryzene and benzene that would be expected from plastics.
However, Sewell says the smoke with those particles remains aloft for now. When the smoke drops as the fire cools, that could bring particulate matter to ground level.
Sewell also said that residents finding debris should not touch it or, if it’s in a yard, mow over it. The building is of an age where it could contain asbestos. The EPA is collecting and testing debris samples.
1:12 PM: Red Cross shelter sees limited use
Matthew Cain, the county’s EMA director, told Wayne County commissioners during their meeting Wednesday that three individuals used a shelter staffed by the Red Cross overnight.
1:08 PM: Residents nervous as sanitation department reroutes runoff
Kelly Shaw Spitler, who lives on Randolph Street, saw the televised press conference Wednesday morning and decided to find it and ask about water quality.
Fire chief Tim Brown said the water in nearby homes is safe for drinking, and the sanitation department is routing runoff water from the area for special treatment at its plant.
Wayne County Health Department director Christine Stinson said she had not heard of any contamination found in water.
Spitler said she had some anxiety Tuesday about the water after seeing a permanent sign at North West Third and Richmond Avenue that asks any spills be reported to 911. After the press conference and speaking with Richmond Mayor Dave Snow, Spitler said she was confident the water would be safe.
She did not evacuate even though she saw the dark, black smoke near her home and lives about a half-mile from the fire site.
Spitler said explosions, likely of propane tanks, made her dog bark and shook her floor.
12:55 PM: Reid Health sees smoke inhalation cases
Reid Health officials say they have begun to see an influx of community members who are “presenting with headaches and coughs related to smoke inhalation.” They are not aware of anyone seeking treatment for injuries.
A representative for the community health services provider says that when it first learned of the fire, it shut down outside air intakes at its main campus as a precaution. Several Reid service provider offices were closed on Wednesday, mostly along Chester Blvd in Richmond. Reid Ready Care Walk-in Clinic inside Meijer remains open, as are the practices in the Medical Office Building on the main campus.
Billie Kester, Reid Health Vice President/Continuum of Care and Situation Incident Commander, told the Western Wayne News, “we continue to monitor the situation closely and will shift operations if necessary to maintain the safety of our patients, visitors, and staff, as we have done today. Our thoughts are with the first responders actively engaged in battling this fire and with all those who have been directly impacted by the situation.”
11:00 AM: Evacuation order remains in place
The industrial fire at 358 NW F Street in Richmond that started Tuesday afternoon is contained, but continues to burn. An evacuation order for anyone within a half mile radius of the site remains in place Wednesday morning. It’s estimated that over 2,000 people were asked to leave their homes and properties out of an abundance of caution, amid concerns about air quality and personal safety.
Some area churches opened their doors to assist evacuees, including Oak Park Pentecostal Church located at 1920 Chester Blvd, which is staffed by volunteers and representatives from the American Red Cross and is prepared to provide overnight housing.
Crews worked through the night to knock down the fire and protect surrounding properties. In an update posted late Tuesday evening, the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency shared that while the fire is under control, “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.”
Schools and businesses announced closures early this morning as it became clear that definitive environmental testing results from the hazardous materials teams on site were not yet available. Those outside the evacuation zone are asked to remain sheltered in place, keeping windows and doors closed, turning off HVAC units if they draw outside air, and keeping pets inside. Officials emphasize that anyone with existing respiratory issues should use extra caution and seek medical attention if breathing troubles arise.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Richmond fire chief Tim Brown said that the Richmond Fire Department will today work to gain access to the remaining hot spots that can be extinguished. Brown said the property is about 14 acres and about 13.5 acres have burned or are on fire.
The department has resumed its regular coverage of the city after departments from surrounding communities had stepped in yesterday. Brown said that firefighters originally scheduled to work today were sent home last night so they would be ready for a shift change today at 7 a.m.
While officials are noting that the investigation into the cause and nature of the fire will take “several weeks,” Snow and Richmond fire chief Tim Brown have both said that the potential for a serious incident at the site was previously known to the city. According to NPR, Snow told the Associated Press that the property owners “were under a city order to clean up and remediate that site…we knew that was a fire hazard the way they were storing materials.”
READ: The Western Wayne News reported on county-wide preparations for a hazardous materials emergency in our April 5, 2023 issue.
At today’s news conference, Mayor Snow placed blame for the incident on the property’s owner. “An Unsafe Building Commission cleanup order was issued against Seth Smith. It was upheld in the courts when he fought the order,” Snow said. “The city took ownership of part of facility to further its attempt to hold him responsible, and to force cleanup. He still refused to clean up the facility.”
“I am confident we have done everything we should have been doing” to get the facility cleaned up, Snow said. “This is his mess. He is responsible for all of this.”
Snow said it would take millions of dollars to clean up the facility. If the city had cleaned up the facility, he said it would have sacrificed city services. “It’s unfair to expect the taxpayers to invest millions of dollars and lose services to clean up his mess,” Snow said.
Snow said an investigator contacted Smith yesterday. He expects formal communication will be forthcoming. Snow said Smith was “negligent” and “irresponsible” and created the risk to firefighters and residents.
Indiana Fire Marshal Steve Jones credited RFD with doing a “great job” keeping a fire that was fast-growing because of the materials burning away from residential areas.
“It could have grown farther than those buildings,” he said.
Snow also thanked RFD for its efforts, especially with safety in jeopardy. Only one injury has been reported, a firefighter who suffered a minor ankle injury while accessing the fire.
- Richmond residents are advised that waste collection and landfill activities have been temporarily suspended. The City issued a statement online, saying that “to protect workers and the public from smoke exposure, the New Paris Pike Landfill will be closed for the remainder of the day today, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. There will also be no further waste collection. If your trash was not collected today, it may be left at the curb.”
This story is developing and will be updated.