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Chemical fire shuts down Grandview

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Maribel Alcocer rushes her young daughter, Francisca Alcocer, out of Harriet Thompson Elementary School yesterday.

GRANDVIEW - Getting into the sleepy community of Grandview was more difficult than trying to break into Fort Knox yesterday. Every calculated turn along back country roads was foiled as emergency workers and police officers stood, their faces shielded by gas masks, denying entry into the downtown corridor.

Inside the community, children could be seen covering their faces as they ran from school buildings with their parents working to quickly corral them into cars and take them away from the cloud of gas that hung in the air.

The gaseous fumes were the direct effect of a fire that took place yesterday (Wednesday) at the Wilbur-Ellis chemical plant on Wine Country Road in Grandview. According to the Grandview Police Department, the fire started around 12:10 p.m. and continues to smolder this morning.

Driving through Grandview's main thoroughfare yesterday, many businesses were closed up tight and the streets remained quiet as people searched for the best place to stay away from the strong chemical odor that wafted through the community.

Washington State Patrol Lt. Jim Keightley said the Grandview police and fire departments were first to respond to the fire, adding that since the initial call agencies from throughout the state have been called in to assist.

He noted the fire started as a smoky event and still is. A white plume of smoke could be seen rising above the Wilbur-Ellis storage facility late into the night.

Keightley said one of the reasons so much precaution has been taken, including the evacuation of all residences and businesses within a 1/2 mile radius of the fire, is because of the chemical agents involved in the blaze. He said although separately none of the chemicals are thought to pose any significant health risks, when the numerous agents are combined there is no telling what can be created.

"[You've] got a goulash of stuff," Keightley said of the fumes. Keightley and other emergency response crews are currently stationed at the incident command post operating out of the Sunnyside Law and Justice Center.

Yakima County Commissioner and Grandview resident Jesse Palacios was at the command center Wednesday afternoon representing the county.

"Since this isn't exclusively inside the city limits the county is helping," said Palacios.

Providing as much assistance as possible, Palacios said deputy sheriffs have been helping with road blocks and evacuations, and county public works employees have been on scene assisting in any way possible.

Also assisting has been Jim Hall, Director of Emergency Management for Yakima County.

"We've got planning just for these kinds of emergencies," he said.

Palacios said last night one of the biggest concerns was the shifting wind, which could have pushed fumes into more residential areas of Grandview, requiring more evacuations. In the end, although no more evacuations were needed, he still suggested people leave town.

"I'm telling my wife I think you ought to visit our daughter who lives in Prosser," Palacios said Wednesday night.

Homes and businesses within the 1/2 mile radius weren't the only things shuttered up due to the fire. Interstate 82, which runs close to the where the blaze occurred, was closed for more than 12 hours. The Washington State Department of Transportation closed the thoroughfare from milepost 69 to milepost 82 before 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, not reopening the freeway to traffic until early this morning. Yesterday, motorists were forced to detour through Mabton via State Routes 241 and 22.

Monica Casteneda of Yakima found herself stopped on I-82 between milepost 68 and 69 waiting to exit the freeway. She didn't know how she would be able to reach her destination via the detour being pointed out by Washington State Patrol Trooper Darin Foster. The trooper blocked the freeway, directing traffic to exit and travel down Mabton-Sunnyside Highway south to Highway 22, bypassing Grandview and taking travelers directly to Prosser where they could resume freeway travel. The only vehicles allowed to travel the freeway were emergency vehicles, including the Department of Ecology Spill Response Team, which assisted at the fire scene.

"We're trying to keep everybody out of Grandview that we can," the trooper said.

The main concern was chemical laced smoke filling the air in the town.

"It was pretty smelly earlier," said Prosser Police Officer Steve Zetz, who was helping with traffic control at the intersection of Stover and Puterbaugh roads, northwest of the Wilbur-Ellis building.

Zetz said the owners of Mid-Valley Dodge, a business just outside the half-mile radius that was evacuated, were given the option to close and evacuate, which they decided to do Wednesday. Thursday morning minimal staff was on hand to continue operations there.

As of Thursday morning, 27 people had been treated at Prosser Memorial Hospital and an additional eight people were treated at Sunnyside Community Hospital for exposure to the contaminated air.

Although no one was admitted at Sunnyside Community Hospital, Stephanie Williams with Prosser Memorial Hospital said four people were admitted to that hospital and were still in the facility's care this morning. She said those coming to the hospital showed signs of having respiratory symptoms. She explained that for those people who regularly suffer from respiratory problems, such as asthma, the smoke from the fire can make it worse.

Williams added that one patient required the need of the hospital's decontamination facility. She noted that staff members were able to quickly assemble the hospital's decontamination tent and take care of the patient.

"It went very, very well," Williams said.

Keightley said with the weather the way it has been past the couple of days, the air contaminated by the smoke from the fire will likely continue to linger over the Lower Valley. He explained that lack of wind from a local inversion means the contaminated air won't likely stray far from its point of origin.

"It's the worst kind of [weather] situation we could have for the situation," Keightley said.

He noted that last night members of the Tri-County Hazardous Materials team suited up to get a better look at the fire site. Keightley said they were hoping to get a better assessment as to the actions that could be taken to mitigate the fire, as well as determine if further evacuations needed to take place. This morning, Washington State Patrol Sgt. Tom Foster reported that after a thorough investigation the Tri-County Hazardous Material team recommendation was to let the fire burn. He noted that it minimizes the risk to the environment, explaining that dousing the fire with water could spread contaminates and possibly affect ground water.

"One of the things they're going to do today is open up the building to let air in so it will burn hotter and faster," Foster said this morning.

As of Thursday morning, the evacuation radius continued to be a half-mile around the site of the fire.

"Virtually everything in that half-mile radius was evacuated," Keightley said. Foster noted that the evacuation was voluntary, with several families choosing to stay behind.

Those families who were evacuated were originally sent to an evacuation center set up at Arthur H. Smith Elementary School in Grandview. Later, the American Red Cross relocated the emergency evacuation center to the Sunnyside Community Center at South Hill Park in Sunnyside. This morning the more than 20 people who stayed at the facility were taken for breakfast at Sunnyside High School.

David Ramos and Rosa Gonzalez of Grandview were both evacuated from their homes near the fire yesterday and directed to the first shelter set up at Smith School.

Ramos said he was headed to SL Start, which is located on Wine Country Road, around noon Wednesday when he was stopped by police and told he couldn't go any further because of a fire.

"There was a strong chemical smell in the air," he said.

Returning to his North Fourth Street home it wasn't long before a police officer cruised past his house announcing an evacuation.

"They came down the street announcing we were to evacuate," said Ramos, who fled his home on bicycle with only the clothes on his back. "They told me to go somewhere safe. I decided to go to the library because I knew it would be open and be safe."

While at the library, Ramos learned that a shelter had been opened at Smith School.

Gonzalez, a nurse at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Grandview, was headed to lunch when she first noticed the smoke pouring from the area where the Wilbur-Ellis building is located.

"I saw a big cloud of smoke and I could tell it was new," she said. It was while she was on her way to her North Fifth Street home that she saw the fire vehicles pass her, headed to the fire.

As she was headed back to work, a police officer was announcing the evacuation of her neighborhood.

"He said you need to evacuate," said Gonzalez. "I asked him where am I supposed to go. He just looked at me. He didn't know."

It was suggested that those evacuated from their homes stay outside a one-mile perimeter from the point of the fire.

Gonzalez said she attempted to call the Farm Workers clinic, but wasn't able to reach anyone.

"I guess they closed up," she said. "I didn't go back to work."

Standing in the crowded and chaotic entrance to the school, Gonzalez had shelter, but it wasn't comforting.

"I'm here and I really want to go home," she said.

The fire didn't just affect those who live along the main Wine Country Road corridor through Grandview. It also affected the thousands of students attending classes at Grandview's five schools.

Brad Shreeve with the Grandview School District said the Grandview Police Department called him within an hour of the fire starting to alert him to the possibility of toxic fumes being dispersed into the air from the smoke associated with the blaze.

Shreeve said soon after receiving the call, the decision was made not to evacuate the schools and instead to go into a lockdown situation.

"If we keep the kids inside and turn off the ventilation system the environment inside is safer then being outside," Shreeve said.

He added that all of the schools kept their regular hours, with the middle and high schools being dismissed at 2:15 p.m. and the elementary schools being dismissed just after 3 p.m.

Shreeve said students who walk north or who are typically bused to areas in the evacuated area were held at the school. He added that when the school initially went into lockdown mode parents of students with respiratory problems were contacted to come and pick up their children. He added that many parents were opting to pick up their children regardless.

Laura Barajas and Maria Valdez were among those parents who chose to pick up their children at the school before the end of the day. The two women arrived at Harriet Thompson Elementary School about 3 p.m. to pick up Valdez's son, who has a history of respiratory problems.

Staff members at the elementary school were busy keeping track of children as parents rushed in to take them home, pressing paper towels into the hands of everyone coming in and out of the main doors, telling them to cover their mouth as they exited the building.

According to the Washington State Patrol, the Grandview Schools superintendent ordered Grandview schools closed today (Thursday).

Many Grandview businesses closed their doors as well.

Grandview Medical Center in Grandview was within the half-mile radius of the fire and closed for business early Wednesday. The clinic remains closed today.

Dr. Karen Easton was on her way to the clinic when she first smelled what she described as a propane smell wafting in the air.

After having lunch with her staff, the smell changed to a putrid, burnt odor.

"The highway was closed by my office," she said.

Taking some of the back roads she ran into police officers donning gas masks.

"I called my office and told them to go home," she said.

It was about that time that police arrived at the clinic doors to evacuate the staff, sending them further from the scene of the fire.

Easton said that at first she didn't think it was all that serious.

"When you see them blocking the roads off it kind of hits you," she said.

Through the experience Easton said they have learned the small clinic needs a disaster plan.

"You don't know if you're overreacting, but it's better to be safe," she said.

Although trucks were delayed until 7 a.m. this morning due to the closure of I-82, business continued at the Wal-Mart distribution center, which is just outside the half-mile radius around the fire, according to general manager Rick Gray.

"We've been in constant communication with the city administrator and the fire captain," he said. "If anything changes today they will let us know."

Some of the trucks were at the plant when the roads began to shut down and drivers began to look for alternative routes to their destinations.

According to Yakima Valley Chapter American Red Cross Disaster Services Volunteer Paul Billings, a distribution center truck driver and his passenger stopped to receive aid at the Red Cross station.

"The gal wasn't feeling very well," he said. She was checked by a doctor at the scene and then resumed their travels.

Grandview City Administrator Jim Sewell said that businesses within a half-mile radius of the fire have been the most effected by the blaze.

"They can't go back until the fire is out," he said.

But other Grandview businesses, including banks, clinics and restaurants, also closed their doors.

"They closed when the air quality started to drop," said Sewell. "By mid-afternoon the downtown corridor got a lot of odor."

At the time businesses began to close the Environmental Protection Agency didn't have any air quality readings to show whether toxic chemicals had been released into the air.

"Beginning late last night we began to get readings from the EPA, showing the air was safe," Sewell said.

According to the Washington State Patrol, Environmental Protection Agency air monitoring equipment has been brought in and is still not detecting air contaminants outside the immediate vicinity of the burning building.

Sunnyside Fire Chief Aaron Markham was headed to lunch when his department was called to assist the Grandview Fire Department with the blaze at Wilbur-Ellis.

Markham said an estimated 200 chemicals, including fertilizers and pesticides, were in the warm storage room, which is where the fire started. The warm room is used to keep chemicals from freezing over the winter months, he explained.

"The majority of the properties of the chemicals are about the same," said Markham.

He explained that one chemical of particular concern was something that could produce a flammable atmosphere, noting that about 2,900 pounds of the bulk powder was stored in the building where the fire started.

When dealing with a chemical fire such as the one at the Wilbur-Ellis building, Markham said, they are typically allowed to burn because dousing them with water can cause more pollution to the environment. He added that some of the chemicals could also be water reactive.

According to the Washington State Patrol, Wilbur-Ellis has retained the services of NRC Environmental Services for decontamination of the property involved in the fire and for the disposal of associated debris from the incident.

Ken Cowdrey, safety regulatory and environmental manager for Wilbur-Ellis, said a number of chemicals are stored in the warehouse that was involved in the fire. He explained that the room involved in the blaze is well insulated and heated, and was being used to store chemicals that shouldn't freeze.

Cowdrey said the company's Grandview site is divided into three areas. He explained that the main office stands separate from the heated warehouse and shop, which he said are separated by a fire door, which he noted did its job yesterday.

He added that the fire was initially called in by employees of Wilbur-Ellis.

Foster took time to clarify that initial reports that the fire started as a vehicle fire, which then spread to the heated warehouse, were false. He said a vehicle was involved in the incident, but it was consumed by the warehouse fire.

This morning, Foster said it is unknown how the fire started, but it will be further investigated once the fire is extinguished.

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