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Hundreds forced from Indiana homes as plastics fire burns

RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — An evacuation order affecting more than 1,000 people remained in place Wednesday night around a large industrial fire in an Indiana city near the Ohio border where crews worked to douse piles of burning plastics.

Multiple fires that began burning Tuesday afternoon were still burning within about 14 acres of various types of plastics stored inside and outside buildings at a former factory site in Richmond, 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, Fire Chief Tim Brown said.

He said the fire was contained but not under control. Brown said his goal was to finish dousing flames by Saturday morning but “that’s a guess.”

“We are attempting to put the fire out. We are not letting it burn. Evidently there’s some misinformation out there that we’re letting it burn,” he said.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people who live within a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) of the plant were told to leave after the fire began, said David Hosick, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

The evacuation order remained in place Wednesday night. People outside the half-mile radius who live downwind of the fire were advised to keep windows closed and pets inside.

Brown said the fire’s cause remained under investigation and the only injury had been a firefighter who suffered a minor ankle injury overnight Tuesday.

Some Richmond residents took shelter at Oak Park Pentecostals, after families picking up children from the church’s daycare learned they could not return home, said executive pastor Jesse Arthur. He was expecting the church’s expansive gym — with bathrooms, showers and the daycare — to fill up.

“I think most everybody was exhausted. Long day. Traumatic. Everything’s up in the air,” Arthur told The Associated Press.

State and federal regulators were at the scene to monitor air quality and other environmental impacts. The site, which has been used to store plastics and other materials for recycling or resale, has been the target of enforcement action in recent years.

In 2020, a judge affirmed a cleanup order against Cornerstone Trading Group by Richmond’s Unsafe Building Commission. Inspectors had found fire sprinklers missing and what they cited as “excessive plastic materials” considered to be a fire hazard.

It wasn’t clear what, if any, work had been done since the 2020 court ruling. Messages seeking comment from the city were not immediately returned.

“The nature of my business is I’m a commodities dealer. We gather scrap materials,” Seth Smith of Cornerstone Trading told the commission in 2019, according to meeting minutes. He said that each of the boxes represents 150-200 pounds in scrap. “When we process it inside my facility, that same box will weigh 1,500 pounds and we load them onto the containers that go out to 29 different countries around the world,” he said.

Terry Snyder Jr. spent a restless night at a church Tuesday with his parents, who were worried about their home. All three were coughing from the smoke: Snyder and his mother, Wendy, have asthma, while his father, Terry Snyder Sr., has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“I didn’t sleep all night. I was nervous,” Wendy Snyder said. “I’ve never been displaced from my home.”

Aaron Stevens, a police officer who lives six blocks from the site, remained at home despite the evacuation order and watched ash fall on his deck and yard.

Jason Sewell, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency was sampling air outside the evacuation area and into part of Ohio, but no toxic compounds had been detected.

He stressed, however, that residents in the city of 35,000 should avoid the smoke.

President Joe Biden spoke by phone to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and offered his support and any additional federal assistance needed to respond to the fire, the White House said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said a team would be collecting debris samples in the area to determine whether anything containing asbestos may have left the site.

“So we’re following the situation very closely and will continue to provide the community with any assistance that they need,” Regan said.

Because of smoke still wafting from the fire, Indiana’s environmental agency issued an air quality advisory for two counties, Wayne and Randolph, warning that forecasts call for elevated levels of fine soot particles.

State Fire Marshal Steve Jones said residents need to get away from smoke plumes, especially elderly people with respiratory problems.

“There’s a host of different chemicals that plastics give off when they’re on fire. And so it’s concerning,” Jones said.

Pastor Ken Harris at Bethesda Worship Center in Richmond said his church housed about 20 people Tuesday night before they moved to a larger facility.

“We gave them a safe space to breathe and collect their thoughts,” Harris said as dark gray smoke billowed through the blue sky beyond the church’s windows.

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Callahan reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press video journalist Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.

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