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Residents evacuate due to possible toxic particles from industrial fire in Indiana


Smoke from a massive industrial fire has forced as many as 2,000 residents to evacuate their homes in eastern Indiana, near the Ohio border. There are possible harmful particles in the air from this warehouse blaze. The fire is contained. But as Chris Welter of Ohio member station WYSO reports, it is expected to burn for days.

CHRIS WELTER, BYLINE: Huge plumes of thick, black smoke fill the sky over Richmond, Ind., after the fire erupted Tuesday at a plastics recycling and storage facility. The air still has a chemical smell, and it's hard to breathe. It's like someone used a giant smoke machine in this city of some 35,000 people. Schools are closed for now. Terry Snyder is a high school junior whose family lives just a block away from the fire. He says, shortly after he saw the flames, police came by and told his family they should get out immediately.

TERRY SNYDER: I'm just glad that the house is still standing, but it's all enveloped in that black smoke.

WELTER: Snyder says he didn't even have a chance to get his things. His family is now staying at a Red Cross shelter a few miles away at a Pentecostal church. They've been told it could be three or four more days until they can return home.

SNYDER: Hopefully, it would be sooner than that...


SNYDER: ...'Cause it's getting kind of boring over here (laughter). You know what I mean?

WELTER: People who live within a half-mile radius of the blaze have been urged to evacuate. Others who live further out, but downwind, have been instructed to shelter in place, turn off their HVAC systems and shut windows and doors. There's concern about hazardous particles in the air from the burning plastic stored at the warehouse. Jason Sewell from the EPA said at a press conference this morning that he has a team of contractors monitoring air quality in the Richmond area.


JASON SEWELL: Fortunately, the toxic compounds that we're looking for we're not seeing. But everyone needs to keep in mind that smoke is harmful, and we are seeing smoke in our particulate meters.

WELTER: It's not clear yet how the fire started, and officials say there will be an investigation once the flames are out. Richmond's mayor, Dave Snow, said at the press conference that the warehouse has been cited for numerous safety violations in the past, and that anyone responsible for the blaze will be held to account.


DAVE SNOW: We were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard, so this was a fear for us.

WELTER: President Joe Biden said this afternoon that he has been in touch with Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb and offered federal help to make sure the area is safe. Meanwhile, those residents who have had to leave their homes can only sit and wait for the smoke to clear.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Welter in Richmond, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Welter
Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.