RICHMOND, Ind. – Efforts continued Wednesday to control a large industrial fire in Richmond.

During a Wednesday morning update, officials said most of the property at 358 NW F St.—more than 13 of its 14 acres—had burned. Crews worked overnight to contain the blaze, which led to an evacuation order.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued an Air Quality Action Day in Wayne and Randolph counties due in part to smoke from the fire. The agency said conditions “should improve overnight and Thursday.”

People are encouraged to reduce trips, conserve energy and avoid any unnecessary burning. They should also limit outdoor activity.

Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said clutter and rubbish in the area posed challenges for first responders at the scene, who essentially had only one point of entrance to the site. The building housed plastics and recyclables.

Mayor Dave Snow placed much of the blame on the property owner, saying the city has been involved in litigation regarding the site. The city of Richmond also owns part of the property, which Snow said was part of efforts to hold the property owner accountable.

“We just wish the property owner and the business owner would’ve taken this more serious from day one,” Snow said. “This person has been negligent and irresponsible, and it’s led to putting a lot of people in danger.”

The site, formerly operating as “My Way Trading,” had been the subject of a citation for unsafe buildings and unsafe grounds, officials said.

While Snow acknowledged the city would have “formal communications” with the property owner, he emphasized that the safety of Richmond’s residents and first responders was top of mind.

Challenging site

Brown said plastics were piled all over the site, including in semi truck trailers and buildings. He believed crews would be able to move more freely across the complex Wednesday, with firefighters able to attack from an elevated position.

Brown said the first call about the fire came in at 2:40 p.m. Tuesday. It was a fast-growing fire, with crews making it a priority to contain it to the site and keep it out of the surrounding area. He characterized that effort as successful.

“There’s only one access into that area,” Brown said. “We contained [the fire] to that area yesterday afternoon and continued that through the night. Today, when we have daylight, of course, we can start digging and start moving things to get us in there to where we can start extinguishing this fire.”

State Fire Marshal Steve Jones commended the Richmond Fire Department’s efforts to contain the fire, saying firefighters were able to cut it off from the surrounding residential area. The property is likely to be a total loss, but local efforts prevented it from destroying other buildings.

Jones said investigators wouldn’t be able to determine the cause of the fire for a while, mostly because the scene is still dangerous and investigators can’t access the site until it’s safe.

Health concerns

Jason Sewell with the Environmental Protection Agency said roving crews were monitoring the air quality. Smoke is the primary concern, Sewell said, with tests concentrated on styrene, benzene and other toxins potentially in the air.

Air quality monitoring will continue 24 hours a day in the evacuation zone as well as the shelter in place area.

Christine Stinson with the Wayne County Health Department advised residents to “honor the evacuation zone” and stay out of the area. The smoke contains particulates that could be dangerous to anyone, especially those susceptible to respiratory issues.

“Any smoke, whether it has benzene or other compounds, is dangerous because of the particulate matter,” she said. “Breathing that in, just the particulate matter, is dangerous, but in particular for people with chronic illnesses, COPD and the elderly,” Stinson said.

Burning of the eyes, tightening of the chest and bronchitis are among the concerns from the smoke.

The evacuation order remains in place for those living with a half-mile of the site. People living outside the evacuation zone are being told to shelter in place, turn off HVAC units, keep windows and doors closed and bring their pets inside.

“It’s for your safety that the evacuation zone is there,” Stinson said. “If you can see the smoke, you’re in the smoke, get out of the smoke. If there’s a reason that you need to go back to your home to get medication, you need to work with officials on that site so we can safely escort you in and out of this evacuation zone.”

Schools close, additional resources

Richmond Community Schools canceled classes and e-learning on Wednesday. In an update, the district said it would cancel classes Thursday as well. Indiana University East switched to virtual instruction with “limited operations” on campus on Wednesday.

Officials said a community helpline would launch Wednesday to answer questions and direct residents to available resources.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has offered additional resources to aid the investigation, officials said. Personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management have also been called to the scene to assist.

The White House said President Joe Biden spoke over the phone with Gov. Eric Holcomb about the fire and offered his full support and additional federal assistance.

The office of Rep. Greg Pence said in a statement that he was monitoring developments in Richmond:

Like many across Indiana and the country, Congressman Pence is watching and tracking the industrial fire in Richmond and the ongoing response led by the Richmond Fire Department, Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, and many other first responders. The Congressman has personally reached out to Mayor Dave Snow and Fire Chief Tim Brown and encourages all those affected by this incident to continue to follow guidance as announced by local leaders.