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Chief: Flames out, but Indiana plastic fire still smoldering


RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — Firefighters have doused the flames at a major industrial fire in Indiana fueled by tons of scrap plastics, but crews continue trying to extinguish hot spots, and an evacuation order for people nearby remains in place, the fire chief said Friday.

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow tweeted Thursday night that Fire Chief Tim Brown had informed him that “the fire has been fully extinguished ahead of schedule,” but Brown said Friday morning that was not the case.

“When I told him it was under control, he thought that meant it was out. He and I spoke this morning, and it was just a difference of definition between him and I,” Brown told The Associated Press.

The chief said the fire was “under control” as of Thursday night at the 14-acre former factory site in Richmond, a city of 35,000 about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, near the Ohio border.

But he said it may be weeks before the fire is considered fully extinguished because plastics continue to smolder in four hot spots within the vast amount of materials stored at the site. Crews are using excavators to reach those areas, he said.

“Under control means there’s no visible flames. However, there are still hot spots,” Brown said.

Officials had said earlier Thursday that the fire, which began Tuesday afternoon, was close to being extinguished.

Brown said Thursday that the site had six buildings full of plastics “floor to ceiling and wall to wall” but that he expected the fires to be out by late Thursday or Friday morning.

An evacuation order for at least 1,500 people living within a half-mile was still in effect Friday morning. Snow said in his tweet that “we’re now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples to determine when the evacuation order can be lifted.”

A message seeking an update was left Friday morning for Snow, whose assistant said he was in a meeting.

Clouds of black smoke marred the spring sky after the fire began Tuesday. By Thursday afternoon, the smoke was lighter and less dense after progress in dousing the fires.

Tests on debris that landed outside the fire zone showed some evidence of asbestos, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which urged residents not to disturb anything they found.

Richmond officials disclosed more details Thursday about the city’s dealings with a man who was operating the business. They said that Seth Smith was barred from accepting more plastics for resale following a 2020 cleanup order, but that he was allowed to keep selling a vast collection still on hand.

Smith told the city in 2019 that he sends scrap materials to 29 countries, according to meeting minutes of the Unsafe Building Commission.

A judge in 2020 affirmed a cleanup order after city inspectors found fire sprinklers missing and fire hazards among stacks of bulk packages of plastics. Warehouse roofs had holes and there were no utilities.

Snow said that the plastics dealer was at fault for the fire and that Smith told the city to speak to his attorney about the fire. The Associated Press could not reach Smith through phone listings. Ron Moore, a lawyer who has represented him, declined to comment.