PLAINFIELD, Ind. – A massive fire continues to burn Thursday afternoon at the Walmart distribution center in Plainfield.
The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon, sending a plume of black smoke into the air that was visible for miles. The fire also dumped debris and ashes on surrounding areas.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far about the fire.
Where and when did this happen?
The fire started around 12 p.m. Wednesday at the Walmart distribution center located at 9590 Allpoints Parkway. Smoke from the large fire was visible from several miles away. Neighboring facilities were evacuated as a precaution and nearby residents were urged to shelter in place.
The warehouse spans about 1.2 million square feet. Smoke even showed up on weather radar!
How did it start?
We won’t know the cause of the fire for days or even weeks. Investigators haven’t had a chance to get inside the facility yet due to the ongoing effort to put out hotspots that continue to spark.
Building access remains their biggest challenge, according to Plainfield Fire Chief Brent Anderson.
“Right now it’s just the access in the building — the uncertainty of the building,” he said. “It’s going to take quite a bit of work while we try to remove some of the obstacles that are in our way.”
Anderson said it appeared the fire was first spotted on the third floor of the warehouse, but the investigation will determine more specifics on its origin and cause.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is investigating the cause of the fire and told FOX59 on Thursday afternoon that additional resources were on the way.
What was inside the distribution center?
The warehouse contained a variety of items set for distribution, including clothing, food, electronics and a lot of shipping materials.
“If you can think of it, it’s probably in there,” Anderson said of the facility and its contents.
How big was the firefighting effort?
At the fire’s height, nearly 200 firefighters were involved in the effort to put it out.
Firefighters encountered raging fire and thick smoke with zero visibility. Crews fought the fire for about 30 minutes inside the warehouse before switching to a defensive operation.
“Every one of those departments that responded all came in with the same goal in mind of assisting Plainfield and trying to get this fire under control,” said Capt. Eric Banister, public information officer at the Wayne Township Fire Department.
To be specific, at least 24 agencies responded to assist the Plainfield Fire Department in the efforts and for many firefighters we spoke with, this was the biggest fire they can recall responding to in their career.
“This is the largest fire in my career. This is the largest fire I can remember in my career in central Indiana,” said Anderson.
“Over one million square feet under a roof, that’s probably the biggest I can recall in my 20-plus years,” said Banister.
Wayne Township firefighters responded to assist in the efforts as part of the mutual aid called to the scene.
“I think eventually it got to five alarms, which is very rare, you don’t see that a lot,” said Banister.
Jerry Bessler, A-Shift Battalion Chief and public information officer for the Washington Township Avon Fire Department, said this was the most significant sized fire he can recall responding to, as well.
“A lot of people will say this is a once-in-a-lifetime fire, a career fire. Hopefully, it is. I would never want to see this type of mass destruction again,” said Bessler.
Although crews train in their own respective manner, and do often conduct joint training with agencies in their county and beyond county lines, fire officials said it’s difficult to coordinate a training with as many agencies as we saw at this scene.
“It’s hard to do a training of this magnitude, like to get this many agencies together just as a training,” said Banister. “Individually it’s up to each department to prepare for commercial building responses.”
However, as luck would have it, at the moment the call came out over dispatch, the Plainfield Fire Department and Washington Township Avon Fire Departments were conducting a training nearby for this type of response and were on scene in about three minutes.
“We had crews just down the street doing some training and they were actually training on building construction for warehouses and what we can expect for fire load,” said Anderson.
Bessler, who was a part of the morning session of training, said there were things they went over that came into play as they arrived on scene Wednesday.
“Part of the training we learned about is how this is constructed,” said Bessler. “They say it’s like a deck of cards or almost like a domino effect. When things start to happen, it really just happens quickly.”
One of the things that Bessler said they reviewed during the training, which was coordinated by John Shafer, Division Chief of Fire Training for Washington Township Avon Fire Department, was what happens when the walls of a structure like this begins to push out.
“Once that push happens, then that 12-ton slab of concrete is going to come somewhere,” said Bessler.
“You’re always taught, especially in this training, that the biggest trailer that will come into these places is 50 foot. So, if I have a 53-foot trailer, I need to keep my rigs at least 60 feet from a structure because when these slabs come down it’s not like a house or bricks that just fall off and fall straight down. These things come down in one solid 12-ton piece,” Bessler explained.
They’re even taught that where you place apparatus is vital, said Bessler. He mentioned, if you look at the corners of the building, you’ll see they’re still standing, while everything else around them has collapsed in.
During Wednesday’s response, Bessler was in charge of staging apparatus, and said there was one point where they had to reset where the rigs were parked to ensure they were completely out of the collapse zone.
They’re still putting water on hot spots, which could continue for several days. Crews rotate out every few hours, Anderson said.
“It’s one of those fires you hope never happens, but as we all do, you prepare and train for the worst,” said Shafer.
When responding to the scene, those we spoke with said, it wasn’t about asking what to do, but rather anticipating and being prepared for what is expected of them as they arrived at the scene. They credited the way agencies in the county and beyond train together and communicate to prepare for mutual aid responses.
“It’s like putting pieces of the puzzle, we’re trying to put apparatus in the most advantageous place to try to control the fire or prevent further fire spread,” said Banister. “It was a very difficult situation. There’s a lot more fire than there is water a lot of times in these situations, but staying in there, trying every tactic we could to throw at it, and then basically keeping ourselves safe while still aggressively trying to control the fire — I’m very proud of everybody that made the effort there.”
Was anyone hurt?
According to Anderson and Walmart officials, the warehouse’s approximately 1,000 employees were inside the building when the fire broke out. All of them were able to escape and are accounted for.
Departments responding to the scene credited the quick actions and preparedness of Walmart employees and management for getting everyone to safety.
“I think it speaks universally for how well-prepared Walmart and a lot of our companies are,” said Banister. “I give a lot of credit to Walmart and a lot of our corporate people, the businesses we deal with. They do take their employees safety very seriously.”
“We just want to make sure that they know they did the right thing, got out of the building and that building can be replaced, most likely will be replaced but they can’t be,” Banister added.
Two firefighters were briefly unaccounted for after crews retreated from the warehouse’s interior. They were located after a “few tense minutes,” according to Anderson.
What happened to the employees?
Plainfield school buses transported the workers to a reunification site on Smith Road. Many employees left their phones behind during the evacuation and couldn’t contact their loved ones.
A Walmart spokesperson said all affected workers will be paid for 40 hours this week, plus any overtime, as the facility remains closed. The company said it would assist with lodging and transportation for employees who needed it.
“I don’t have anything now. Especially my phone, everything is on my phone. Can’t do anything,” employee Biri Welbemaram said.
Some of the employees returned to pick up their vehicles today. The company has said they’re confident they’ll be able to place all employees at other stores and facilities.
However, some employees are still left wondering if there will be a job for them.
“I’m wanting to find out about the future if they’re going to rebuild,” Angela Beverly said.
Many workers will get temporary reassignments. The company said the “resiliency” of the supply chain should help shoulder the load in the wake of the fire.
What about all the debris?
One of the unique impacts of the fire was the amount of ashes and debris that rained down on surrounding areas. Our news crews and viewers snapped photos of debris on streets and in yards.
Officials urged residents to avoid touching the debris because it could potentially be toxic. They said it was best to err on the side of caution.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency have been called to analyze the debris and assess the air quality.
On Thursday, a Knozone Action Day was declared due to lingering smoke from the fire.