Asarco fire in Montana : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Tuesday, January 25,2000 Fire at Asarco burns out of control Monday night

By EVE BYRON and GRANT SASEK, IR Staff Writers

A fire burning out of control at Asarco Monday night sent smoke billowing through the streets of East Helena, prompting health offi cials to warn residents to stay indoors.

The fire began about 6 p.m. in one of the plant's three `` bag houses'' -- four-story struc tures housing equipment that filters air used in the lead smelting process. The bag houses are located just about in the middle of the plant, and the fire was between the ceiling and the roof of the eastern-most bag house, according to Lewis and Clark County Undersheriff Cheryl Liedle. By 10:15 p.m., no flames were visible and crews were shooting water into and over the burning building. But additional firefighters were being called in as officials worried about the possibility of the blaze spreading.

`` We have no idea how it started, at this point,'' Liedle said, her face illuminated by flashing blue and red emergency lights as she watched firefighters scurry about outside the burn ing structure. `` We'll be out here most of the night and into the morning, without question.'' The dust in the bag houses created two prob lems for firefighters -- the potential for an explosion and the possibility that heavy metals in the dust were being carried into East Helena with the smoke from the fire.

Residents living within a mile of the fire were advised to stay inside and to shut down ventilation systems to avoid the thick cloud of smoke that spread over East Helena, said Paul Spengler, Lewis and Clark County Dis aster and Emergency Ser vices Coordinator. Late Monday, the question of how much threat was posed by the smoke remained unan swered. Spengler said they aren't sure how much dust was carried into the community, but added that air moni toring systems already in place in East Helena may later be able to answer some of those questions. `` There is a lot of speculation going on,'' Spengler said. `` But right now we just don't have the answers to those health questions.'' If a decision is made by this morning that the situation remains hazardous around the plant, residents will be advised over local radio and television stations, Spengler said. The location of the fire also posed problems for those try ing to put it out. Liedle said the metal roof on the building made it too hot for firefight ers to approach it from above, and the close proximity of the burning structure to the two other buildings made maneu vering difficult. She was also hesitant to have firefighters enter the bag house because of the danger. About 50 firefighters wearing air masks worked in shifts in an attempt to minimize exhaustion and exposure to the potentially harmful heavy metals. Still, one man was sent to St. Peter's Hospital for treatment of exhaustion. `` We only let them go in for about half an hour,'' Liedle said. `` If someone gets hurt, we'll contain their turnout gear. We're being real cau tious about this.''

Just about every fire department in the valley -- East Helena, Eastgate, Lake side, West Valley, Baxendale, Birdseye, Lewis and Clark County and the city of Helena -- were paged out to the fire. The Red Cross also was on scene, bringing food and hot drinks to the tired volunteers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2000

-- Martin Thompson (, January 25, 2000

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