Toxic fumes spew from Lents recycling plant fire

Here’s why a blanket of noxious smoke covered outer East Portland, causing some nearby Lents neighbors to report respiratory problems …

From blocks away, flames are soaring into the air, as huge bales of plastic and other materials burn in the WestRock recycling yard.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

It wasn’t all the Portland Fire & Rescue (PP&R) trucks and engines blocking streets in the “Freeway Lands” area of the Lents neighborhood that was concerning residents on December 16, when fire broke out at just after 4:00 p.m. in the storage yard of the WestRock recycling center at SE 100th Avenue and Foster Road – it was the acrid smoke and fumes that spewed from the blaze.

Although firefighters pour thousands of gallons of water on the fire at the WestRock recycling yard, flames continue to grow.

“Officials told us to stay inside, but it didn’t help; my daughter had nosebleeds for two days, and we’ve been coughing up bad stuff from our lungs,” remarked neighbor Vikash Habib.

“When the breeze shifted our way, it was almost impossible to breathe, and plastic ashes came down like snow,” Habib told East Portland News the following day, watching smoke rise from piles of melted, and still smoldering, debris.

The fire was officially dispatched at 4:11 p.m., and the crew of PF&R Powellhurst Station 29 arrived first, closely followed by Woodstock Station’s Truck 25 and Engine 25 firefighting companies. Although a “Second Alarm” call was never heard, firefighting units from many stations responded to the scene as the fire grew.

Water shoots from nozzles high atop the fully-extended, truck- mounted aerial ladder units on PF&R trucks.

While not yet officially confirmed by PF&R, reports were that the first fire hydrant tapped for water was “dry” – as was the second hydrant – delaying the fire attack. It is not knwon if these hydrants were on the WestRock property, or were City street-side hydrants.

“The hydrants for water supply in that area are on a ‘single loop’; crews had to lay [water] lines across SE Foster Road to also draw water from a different loop,” PF&R Public Information Officer Capt. Louisa Jones told East Portland News in a telephone interview.

The fire continues to rage, as firefighters successfully keep it from spreading to surrounding buildings or homes.

By 5:00 p.m., flames were still leaping high into the air, unquenched by the streams of water from nozzles mounted at the top of two extended ladders mounted on Truck 7, and Woodstock’s Station Truck 25.

Huge bales of plastic, neatly stacked close together, and up to four stories high, flamed fiercely, sending a column of dense, acrid smoke up into the late afternoon sky.

“People with respiratory issues should avoid breathing the smoke from the fire,” Jones told television station reporters as the battle against the fire raged.

Although we were standing on a public sidewalk, across the street from the fire site, this image shows the glove of a worker wearing a WestRock vest and jacket shoving our camera into our face – in an attempt to prevent us from taking photographs of the fire.

A safe distance away from the combative WestRock ruffians, is this photo of a firefighter, at the top of an aerial ladder, spraying water on the fire below.

Into the night, as the fire raged on, the stench of potentially toxic gasses from the burning bundles wafted over outer East Portland, and could actually be smelled as far as six miles north of WestRock’s yard.

The following day, workers driving front loaders like this one, beginning moving piles of burned and melted debris in the yard, dumping it into drop boxes brought to the site.

It remains unknown if the smoldering heaps of burned plastic are a health hazard, or if nearby Johnson Creek has been polluted by runoff from the thousands of gallons of water used to put out this fire.

The cause of the industrial fire, and other information about this blaze, has yet to be made public by the Portland Fire Bureau.

© 2017 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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