By CHRIS MENEES
There was no problem seeing the fire Thursday night at Greenway Recover & Recycle in Union City’s industrial park.
But it was an entirely different scene earlier in the day for firefighters working inside the burning building.
Poor visibility — created by extremely heavy smoke — and difficult access due to bales of cardboard and plastic severely hampered firefighters’ efforts as they battled the blaze for hours.
In fact, firefighters remained on the scene at press time today — more than 24 hours after the fire was initially reported — and it is anticipated crews will remain there on a rotating basis into the weekend as long as necessary.
The fire was reported at 11:10 a.m. Thursday at Greenway, located at 1610 North Morgan St. Ext. in Cloys Industrial Park, across the street from VF Factory Outlet.
The Union City Fire Department initially responded to the alarm just before lunchtime and — as thick smoke billowed and the fire inside Greenway simmered throughout the afternoon and evening — ultimately summoned assistance from the neighboring Rives, Troy, South Fulton, Martin and Hornbeak fire departments.
At least 50 firefighters were on the scene Thursday and into today, as well as an ambulance crew from Baptist EMS for medical standby and to offer rehab to battle weary firefighters.
As firefighters worked, Greenway co-owner and president of operations Jack Jernigan remained on site and closely watched the situation as it unfolded. An inspector from the city's code enforcement also stopped by.
Union City Fire Chief Kelly Edmison said the fire apparently began when a baling machine caught fire inside the recycling center, which housed a huge number of bales of cardboard and plastic material.
“They said they had a baling machine and the belts caught fire,” he told The Messenger early today at the scene. “What you see outside (on the property) is what’s inside — bales of cardboard and plastic, where the black smoke is coming from.
“They had begun to fight the fire themselves for a little bit before they called us,” he added.
All of the center’s employees were able to safely escape and no injuries were reported.
Edmison said there was some discrepancy over the building’s sprinkler system, with some reports it was working and quit functioning, other reports it was shut off and other reports it was possibly broken. Firefighters could hear water running inside, but the chief said “it was major water” and not sprinkler water.
However, it was unsafe for firefighters to access the location to check the sprinkler system.
As the heavy smoke continued to build and pour out Thursday afternoon, firefighters constantly rotated in and out of the building as they tried to control the fire. Edmison said they made a hole and ventilated the roof at one point in the hope it would help, but it didn’t, and they tried in vain to use exhaust fans to help clear some of the heavy smoke.
“We continually fought from the rear door and continually had a crew taking turns going in with a deck gun on the inside (at the rear) and the same thing on the far side and we weren’t making any headway,” Edmison said.
As firefighting crews rotated in and out of the building, Edmison was positioned at the back with a roster to ensure everyone was accounted for and to keep tabs on who was inside at a given time.
“There was very low visibility and it kept getting hotter and, half the time to get to the fire, you were having to climb over these bales and such and it was to the point — and the last thing a firefighter wants to see is something burn down — it’s not worth getting anybody hurt over,” the chief said. “It’s a safety issue.”
Firefighters made the difficult decision to pull back crews early Thursday evening after already having fought the fire for several hours.
“We pulled back,” Edmison said. “We were hoping it would breach itself in that far corner, so we left a skeleton crew here last night, a ladder truck and an engine company. I don’t think I had been home for about an hour when they paged it back out (for firefighters to respond). It blew out the back door and, the next thing I knew, all of this (baled material behind the building) was on fire.”
The spectacular blaze which was visible for miles around erupted about 9 p.m. Thursday after the back door blew out. It created an eerie glow in the late-night sky and was accompanied by a plume of billowing smoke which has left a haze in the air today.
The wind shifted overnight and the smoke changed direction, and many Union City residents have reported finding ashes on their vehicles at their homes miles away across town.
As the fire blazed into the night, firefighters concentrated on the treeline at the back of Greenway’s lot and a ditch area with a couple hundred bales of material, according to Edmison. The Division of Forestry used machinery to cut a path along the far back line to create a fire break.
“Right now, we’re trying to surround and drown and cool it off,” Edmison said shortly before 7 a.m. today at the scene.
He said a crew from Union City’s public works department also came with heavy equipment “and did a great job” in moving some things and breaking up some materials.
“We appreciate all the help,” Edmison said. “Those guys worked their butts off and our guys have tried to shift and rotate through the night. They’ve done a good job and they haven’t had any decent sleep. ... It’s been an effort by everybody.”
Union City firefighters will remain on the scene with skeleton crews, with personnel to keep rotating out throughout the weekend as new shifts come on duty. Edmison said they want to monitor the smoldering remains and ensure nothing blows toward any homes or other businesses in the area, particularly with any shift in the wind.
“We’re trying to keep a break all the way around this thing,” he explained.
He said it could take days for the fire to entirely burn out, adding that plastic burns similar to rubber.
“We know, from what they’ve told us, what started it and we’re just trying to put the thing out,” Edmison said. “All we’re trying to do is get the outside area wet down enough that it doesn’t leave.”
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 9.14.12