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Indiana industrial fire that started evacuation order "grew with intensity," says local fire chief

Toxic industrial fire still burning in Indiana
Toxic fire continues to burn in Indiana 02:03

An evacuation order affecting more than 1,000 people was expected to remain in place through Wednesday as crews worked through the night to douse piles of burning plastics, authorities said.

Richmond Fire Department Chief Tim Brown told CBS News the fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon in Richmond, Indiana, "grew with intensity" and spread quickly throughout the 14-acre facility.

Brown said the plan is to put out the fire by "sometime on Saturday," and the fire response teams need to gain access to hotspot areas. Responders were working diligently, but their job was made tougher because they have to move things around, he told CBS News. 

Brown said their goal is to put out the fires rather than letting them burn, and said rumors to the contrary were incorrect.

"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 of the plant were told to leave after the fire began, said David Hosick, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

APTOPIX Industrial Fire Indiana
Authorities urged people to evacuate if they live near the fire. The former factory site was used to store plastics and other materials for recycling or resale. Michael Conroy via AP

Brown, the fire chief, said it's unclear how many people have been evacuated from around the site. People outside that radius who live downwind of the fire were advised to keep windows closed and pets inside.

Brown said the evacuation order would remain in place through Wednesday and perhaps into Wednesday night, depending on how much progress crews make in putting out the flames. He said the cause of the fire remains under investigation and the only injury has been a firefighter who suffered a minor ankle injury overnight Tuesday.

State and federal regulators were at the scene to monitor air quality and other environmental impacts at the site, which local officials said has been used to store plastics and other materials for recycling or resale. 

Brown told CBS News that smoke samples have been taken to judge how "toxic" smoke is and to monitor air quality.

Jason Sewell, the on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency has been doing roving air sampling outside the evacuation area and into part of nearby Ohio, but no toxic compounds have been detected.

He stressed, however, that smoke is harmful to inhale because it contains particulate matter of different sizes and can contain toxins, and residents should avoid the smoke.

Sewell said air sampling was continuing Wednesday in Richmond, a city of 35,000 residents.

President Joe Biden, who has been visiting Northern Ireland and Ireland, 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 the federal agency was working closely with its state and local partners in responding to and monitoring the fire. He said an EPA team would be collecting samples of debris in the area Wednesday "to determine whether asbestos-containing materials 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," he said in the nation's capitol before speaking about tough new automobile pollution control limits.

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

Indiana's state fire marshal, Steve Jones, said residents need to get away from the 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.

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said Wednesday that the plastics recycling site had been under a city order to clean up and remediate the complex, but said the business owner had ignored that order. Snow called that person "a negligent business owner."

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