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Recycling plant fire fully extinguished, evacuation order still underway, Indiana officials say

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(RICHMOND, Ind.) — A large fire at an Indiana recycling plant is now fully extinguished, officials said Thursday, while an evacuation order for more than 2,000 residents remains in place.

“The fire has been fully extinguished ahead of schedule,” Richmond Mayor Dave Snow tweeted. “We’re now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples to determine when the evacuation order can be lifted.”

Any resident within a half-mile radius of the plant in Richmond, Indiana, was ordered to evacuate due to the “large industrial fire” on Tuesday afternoon, local officials said.

The evacuation zone impacts approximately 2,011 residents, according to a representative from the Wayne County Emergency Management Office. Officials haven’t given residents the all-clear to return to their homes.

Anyone downwind of the incident should shelter in place, according to officials.

Officials on Thursday set up transportation for residents to quickly go back to their homes to get medication or any other needs. Those who go to their residences will be escorted by law enforcement, have to wear an N95 mask and will only have a short amount of time to enter, according to Snow.

“The smoke is definitely toxic,” Indiana State Fire Marshal Stephen Jones had previously told reporters during a press briefing. “We don’t want the residents in the smoke. As the wind changes, we may change the direction of the evacuations.”

A firefighter who responded to the scene injured his ankle after he fell down a ravine, according to Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown. He was treated at a local hospital and has since been released.

A second firefighter was also injured Wednesday night while they were assisting and was overcome by heat, according to Brown. The firefighter was treated and released.

The fire was reported sometime after 2 p.m. local time Tuesday and has since been contained, Brown said. The fire is expected to burn for several days, Jones said, who also confirmed that they are conducting air monitoring.

The plant, located near the Indiana-Ohio border, is owned in part by the city of Richmond and in part by a private citizen, according to Brown.

“He has been warned several times,” the city fire chief told reporters Tuesday. “We have an unsafe citation that was issued to him. We don’t know exactly when that was but we were aware of the situation and we were dealing with the situation.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Snow was adamant that the business owner will be held accountable.

The building is the former Hoffco/Comet Industries plant, which produced lawn and garden products for 60 years before closing in 2009, according to a situation report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The facility now processes recyclables, including plastics, according to Jones.

“There’s a host of different chemicals plastics give off when they’re on fire, so it’s concerning,” the state fire marshal told reporters Tuesday.

Brown said the property is about 14 acres and there is plastic everywhere. There are piles of plastic both inside and outside the buildings and semi-trailers filled with plastic. When asked how much is estimated to have burned, Brown said he estimates about 13 ½ acres of the property have burned.

During a telephone interview with ABC News on Tuesday, Snow called the fire a “worst-case scenario” and voiced concern for the air quality in the city, which is home to more than 35,000 people.

“This is something we never wanted to see happen,” Snow said.

“We want everyone to limit their exposure to that black smoke and stay far away from the area,” he added. “Not only is it a dangerous area right now … limiting your exposure to this black smoke is the best thing for your health.”

A community help line will be established, and Richmond Community Schools were closed Wednesday.

Jason Sewell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told ABC News Thursday that samples have tested positive for chrysotile asbestos. The agency is urging residents who may have debris in their front yards to not mow the grass over fears asbestos in the debris may get kicked up into the air.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters that the agency was on the ground in Richmond within hours of the fire and began monitoring at 15 mobile locations.

“The EPA team is on the ground and will collect debris samples in surrounding communities to determine whether asbestos-containing materials may have been left at the site,” Regan said Wednesday.

Richmond resident Aaron Stevens told ABC News that he saw a “huge pillar of smoke” and heard “explosions and pops” from his home, located roughly a half mile from the plant.

“There is an odor, a burning odor,” Stevens said. “What is more disheartening is the fact that I’m hearing explosions and pops this far away.”

Stevens’ home is located within the evacuation zone, though he said he has opted not to leave because he is hobbled by a knee injury. The police officer and school board member said he has a plan if he gets another evacuation alert.

“If it gets to the point where I realize that this is really going to be unsafe, I’m within just a minute or two away from having someone come and get me,” Stevens said.

Richmond resident Brad Walton described what smelled like burning tires from his home, located about 5 miles from the fire.

“It’s just not a good smell,” Walton told ABC News, adding that he could see the smoke plume in Hamilton, Ohio, roughly 35 miles away.

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