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Evacuation order lifted in area around Indiana plastic fire

Evacuation and shelter-in-place orders have been lifted in the area surrounding a plastics fire that broke out last week in Richmond, Indiana, local authorities announced Sunday. The orders were lifted at 4 p.m. local time, the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency said in a statement.

"This decision was made in collaboration with multiple federal, state, and local officials and based upon guidance from the Wayne County Health Department using test results and air monitoring data provided to us by the US EPA for analysis," the agency added.

The city said on its website that "businesses and schools in the evacuation zone are able to resume operation."

Testing of air debris would continue, WCEMA director Matthew Cain and Mayor Dave Snow said at a press conference Sunday. At least 1,500 people live in the evacuation zone, though it is not known how many residents actually obeyed the call to evacuate after the fire began Tuesday afternoon.

This aerial photo taken on April 13, 2023 shows an industrial site after a fire in Richmond, Indiana. More than 2,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes after the fire broke out. Shi Lei/Xinhua via Getty Images

"I feel very confident that people will be safe when they move back to their homes," said Dr. David Jetmore, the Wayne County Health Department's health officer.

Jetmore said officials had been "repeatedly testing the air around the site," and that most of the chemicals being tested for had been "non-detectable." Three chemicals — benzene, naphthalene and butadiene — were detected in "small levels," Jetmore said.

"That, coupled with the fact that it's raining today, which of course is cleansing the air of particulate matter, and the fact that the wind's blowing, makes me feel very safe about lifting this evacuation order," he added.

The city of Richmond said on its website that cleaning kits and instructions on how best to clean would be made available to those who live in the former evacuation zone.

"It will be important for you to not only cleanse the outside of your house on high-touch surfaces, such as door handles and railings, but if your house did fill with smoke during the fire, we've got instructions on how to properly and safely clean the inside of your home," said Christine Stinson of the Wayne County Health Department.

Officials have stressed repeatedly that residents who find debris should inform the EPA and should not touch it or try to move it themselves.

Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said crews will remain at the 14-acre (5-hectare) former factory site to extinguish flareups.

The fire began Tuesday, and residents who live within half a mile of the former factory that was being used to store plastics were ordered to evacuate due to what officials called "toxic" smoke. The fire was extinguished on Thursday, the city of Richmond said on its website.

A fire engulfed an abandoned factory storing plastic material in Richmond, Indiana, on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. Indiana State Police

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said hydrogen cyanide and benzene were detected at the fire site.

EPA on-scene coordinator Jason Sewell said at a press conference on Friday that at least one sample of debris from the fire, some of which had traveled more than a mile from the site of the blaze, had tested positive for chrysotile asbestos, also known as white asbestos.

Of the six types of asbestos, white asbestos is the most commonly used form of the mineral, which has been linked to cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.   

The city said that EPA contractors were clearing "impacted schools" of debris first. 

"Contractors will begin on ground level and may deploy drones to search rooftops for additional debris," the city wrote on a website dedicated to the warehouse fire cleanup. "After school grounds are cleared, these contractors will begin removing debris from residential properties, parks and/or public areas, and businesses."

The fire's cause was not known. But it quickly became an inferno, destroying six run-down buildings holding recycled plastic and creating clouds of smoke so high and dark they cast a sprawling shadow over the city of 35,000 people.

The man operating the storage site was under a 2020 court order to clean up the site, which had no utilities and had been declared a serious fire hazard by inspectors. Richmond officials said they had barred him from accepting more plastics while he was working to get rid of the vast holdings.

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