Smoky Fairfield plastics plant fire burns for hours

July 26, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Containers at a Fairfield plastics plant caught fire Tuesday, sending a black plume into the air that could be seen for hours as the fire burned throughout the afternoon.

The fire began around 1:15 p.m. at Macro Plastics on Huntington Drive. More than eight hours after it started, fire crews finally stopped pouring water on one of the troubled hot spots. The fire marshal says the inferno was an accident caused by some employees doing welding near the stacks and stacks of plastic bins behind the plant.

Even after the monster fire was put out, flare-ups continued through the late afternoon and early evening. About five hours after the flames erupted behind Macro Plastics, investigators pointed the finger at workers.

"We've confirmed with the business owners and employees onsite that they did have employees working with some type of open flame device. I don't have details, but probably a blow torch or welding in that area," said Fairfield Fire Marshal Morgana Yahnke.

Macro Plastics supplies containers for primarily the agricultural industry. The white bins that burned are used in vineyards for collecting and hauling grapes to wineries. Many winemakers use the same bins to ferment the crushed fruit. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 bins went up in flames.

"The challenge to this type of fire is that plastic burns extremely hot, there's intense heat and obviously the thick, dark smoke, and it's dangerous for our personnel obviously from a breathing perspective because we're right there with it," said Yahnke.

At the height, the fire reached six alarms. There were 120 firefighters that came from all over Solano County including teams from nearby Travis Air Force Base, which brought two crash trucks used for airplane emergencies. Macro Plastics has been at this location for 20 years and never experienced a fire, according to a company official. About 45 employees work here.

"We're just thankful all of our employees evacuated safely and we didn't have any injuries or anything like that," said Cathy Poliak, the Macro Plastics human resources manager.

A company official told ABC7 there is no damage estimate and as far as Macro Plastics is concerned, the cause of the fire is unconfirmed, despite what the fire marshal told us.

Three firefighters suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene. Firefighters said they would stay babysitting the scene throughout the night.

In terms of safety, Macro Plastics has a pretty good record. However, Cal/OSHA previously cited the company for workplace health and safety violations. Cal/OSHA says it found four violations during an inspection in December of 2007. They include failure to guard machinery and properly service or maintain equipment. Macro paid a total of $2,100 as part of a settlement. The state has no record of workers being injured at the plastics plant.

In the Bedford Hills subdivision, which is less than a mile from Macro Plastics, a shelter in place advisory was called while the fire was burning. By 11 p.m. the smoke had cleared from the area, but residents were very concerned about the thick, black smoke they saw billowing for hours over their homes.

"It was so thick that it covered the sun. The sun looked like the moon. There was so much thick, black smoke up there," said resident Regina Clark.

The fire produced a toxic smoke plume. Witnesses say it shot nearly a mile into the dark sky above Macro Plastics and then the phones started ringing. The city sent out a reverse 911 call advising residents who live within a mile of the plastic container company to shelter in place.

"I'll be staying indoors too because I can smell some of the smoke and they said to just stay indoors, so I'll be staying indoors too," said resident Sharlene Bermudez.

Crews from Bay Area Air Quality Management took air and soil samples. It's not known exactly what is in the smoke or how dangerous it was, but according to the district's director, Mark Ross, the presence of burnt plastic made it a toxic cocktail.

"It's about the worst kind of smoke you can encounter. It's definitely a witch's brew, a toxic cocktail of different elements that we don't even know particularly what's burning, but if plastic is a main ingredient, it's really toxic," said Ross.

"I'm very concerned because I can smell it and it's actually burning my nose," said resident Robin Black.

"This is dangerous. Yes, I agree. This is dangerous stuff, it's our health and especially plastics," said Linda Rupp of Suisun City.

Regardless, the warning or the ominous dark cloud didn't stop people from driving to the area just to look. The smoke could be seen from cities all over the East Bay and Central Valley, but as long as smoke is in the area, the suggestion for residents remains the same to stay inside.

A lot of people are heeding that warning. In fact, the managers over at Dover Mobile Home Park on Walters Road are even considering draining the swimming pool there because of soot and debris that has fallen into it.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District should get those tests back by Thursday or Friday. In the meantime, some signs of exposure to these toxins are: watery eyes, sore throat, and shortness of breath.

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