Firefighters responding to a massive blaze early Saturday at a Puyallup cold storage facility that also forced an evacuation order allowed parts of the site containing hazardous materials to burn through the day as a way to safely disperse potentially toxic fumes, Pierce County fire officials said.
The evacuation order was lifted at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, even as the fire continued to burn, as it is expected to for days. Central Pierce Fire & Rescue lifted a shelter in place order Sunday at about 8 a.m., but warned people to continue to avoid the area.
No injuries were reported from the three-alarm fire at Washington Cold Storage. The evacuation order applied to anyone within a mile of the facility due to the safety risk from a toxic, combustible chemical on site, fire officials said. In all, 10,000 residents were told — by way of a reverse 911 call Saturday morning — to leave the area, Central Pierce Fire & Rescue reported.
The chemical, anhydrous ammonia, which is used as an industrial refrigerant, is potentially toxic and highly explosive. Around 1,000 pounds of it were at the cold-storage facility, fire officials said.
Approximately 150 firefighters from eight agencies battled the fire, which was first reported at 5:22 a.m., according to Capt. Darrin Shaw, spokesperson for Central Pierce Fire & Rescue.
By Saturday evening Shaw explained the fire would burn for days, but that all risk from the hazardous materials had been eliminated. “At this point it is just a big commercial fire,” Shaw said.
He said residents should return to their homes, keep doors and windows closed, turn off air conditioning and heating until Sunday.
The fire hit not only the cold storage facility at 240 15th Street S.E., but adjacent buildings.
“We feel for the owners and the employees,” Shaw said. “But the take-away is no one was killed and no one was injured.”
By around 2 p.m., 86 people had come to a temporary evacuation center at the Puyallup Nazarene Church on Seventh Avenue Southwest, Central Pierce Fire & Rescue reported.
Around midday, fire officials said they would let the fire burn in parts of the facility where the hazardous materials were stored.
“It is safer to let the materials burn hot and disperse at high altitude than to blanket the community in cold smoke,” Central Pierce Fire & Rescue said in a Twitter post at 12:43 p.m.
“We obviously don’t want any of that smoke to go out through the community,” Shaw said. “So letting it it burn high and evaporate in the atmosphere — it’s absolutely done on purpose.”
All activities were suspended at the Puyallup School District, Central Pierce Fire & Rescue reported. Puyallup police said the Farmers Market and “other Puyallup events” were canceled because of the toxic smoke.
On social media, several people reported having to get out of their homes at a moment’s notice. Others said they had not received the 911 notification and learned of the evacuation only after seeing the smoke.Some residents said they were still waiting to learn when they would be allowed to return. As of 3 p.m., fire officials did not have an estimate on when the evacuation order would be lifted. Shaw said a hazardous materials unit was working at the site. “When the hazardous materials team has deemed it safe, that’s when we will allow our citizens to return home,” Shaw said. “We know many citizens & businesses are waiting to hear about how long the GO NOW evacuation will be in place,” Puyallup police posted at 4:40 p.m.. “We believe there will be more info coming out in the next few hours. We know this is an anxious time for many. Safety is the top priority- more to come.”
The blaze spurred a massive emergency response. The Puyallup Police Department recalled “all available officers” for the fire. The City of Puyallup set up an emergency operations center.
Puyallup police officers went through neighborhoods to help clear the area, the department said in a social media post at 8:20 a.m. “If you see or hear an officer announcing the evacuation we encourage you to evacuate.”
Shaw said emergency responders had been aware of the anhydrous ammonia, thanks to “preplanning” by Central Pierce Fire & Rescue to identify hazardous materials at commercial facilities.
As a result, arriving firefighters “know exactly … how much and where any hazardous materials are located,” Shaw said.
Shaw said officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives might also be involved in the response. The federal agency sometimes investigates arsons, but Shaw said there were no signs of arson and the ATF would be involved “strictly for the large scale, and the amount of damage, and the fire loss” from the incident.
Staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes contributed to this report.