Spark ignited fire at metal facility

An electrical discharge is being cited as the cause of an April 7 scrap-metal fire that sent a black plume of smoke into the sky for nearly 24 hours, according to investigators.

Air-quality officials say the plume from the fire at Sims Metal’s Seaport Boulevard site contained high levels of several toxic chemicals. The blaze began the morning of April 7 in a five-story-high pile of shredded automobiles. Firefighters brought it under control at 2:30 a.m. the next day and fully extinguished the fire by 6:40 a.m.

The fire at the 13-acre site burned a stack of shredded metal, plastics and upholstery, according to Redwood City Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Skinner. No employees were on scene when the fire started.

During the fire, heavy smoke from the two-alarm blaze blew south, where residents were advised to stay indoors with windows closed.

High levels of several carcinogens — including benzene, ethylbenzene, styrene and acetone — were concentrated within the plume released by the fire, according to test samples from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. However, sampling stations in Redwood City and Menlo Park showed that the chemicals did not reach dangerous levels outside the site.

The Redwood City Fire Department is still investigating the cause of the fire, but officials say something deepwithin the 50-foot pile of scrapped cars caused an arc, or spark of electricity, Fire Chief Gerald Kohlmann said.

In the wake of the fire, “Sims has put more diligence into inspections to make sure no components, such as a car battery, are left in there,” Kohlmann said. “It’s a possible cause of an arc, but we have nothing definite.”

Despite the toxins within the plume, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has not seen any sign yet that the fire exposed the general public to danger, district spokeswoman Karen Schkolnick said.

“These are not [chemicals] that will cause problems in an acute sense,” Schkolnick said. “The exposure would need to have been for longer periods of time.”

The district, however, is continuing to investigate the case.

Sims Metal, one of the world’s leading metal recyclers, had a similar fire in January that had a similar accidental cause, Kohlmann said. Its owners are now working closely with the fire department to prevent future fires.

“We want to reassure the citizens of the Redwood City area that we will make effort to ensure that these types of accidents are prevented in the future,” said Sims Metal spokesman Dan Strechay.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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