A pile of metal debris from a stockpile of "light iron" recyclable metal exploded and sparked a fire on Tuesday at Sims Metal Management in Redwood City - for the second time in a little more than a month - prompting fears about the quality of air spewing from the blaze.
Health officials asked nearby residents to stay in their homes, and at 7 a.m. advised that nearby residents shelter in place. The smoke could be smelled 16 miles away in Sunnyvale, and police there were telling residents if they felt affected by the smoke to stay inside. Similar advisories were being circulated by the Santa Clara Unified School District.
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Tuesday was also the 10th consecutive "Spare the Air" day in the Bay Area, and officials announced Wednesday would be 11th.
If you smell smoke, authorities say it is a good idea to stay inside if you can and keep the windows closed to avoid exposure.
The two-alarm fire was reported Tuesday about 1 a.m. from the Seaport Boulevard plant, where the "environment, sustainability and the health of the communities" are taken seriously, according to the company website. Then a second and third "spot" fires were reported at nearby addresses because of flying embers. Sims stressed in a statement that any material that comes to its plant are required to be "de-polluted."
Redwood City Fire Marshal Jim Palisi said that by 6 a.m. the fire had been contained, but the smoke was still billowing into the sky.
"I think it's a concern," Redwood City spokeswoman Sheri Costa-Batis said. "It's a great concern to our entire community. It's an issue that we have to look at, evaluate."
Sims representative Melissa Cohen on Tuesday apologized for any "inconvenience."
This fire follows on the heels of a Nov. 10 fire, where the smoke prompted a health warning for people to stay inside to parts of three counties--San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda. That fire was started from old cars burning in the yard, and burned much longer, spewing pollution into the air.
It's hard to believe, but Simms Metal is burning. Again pic.twitter.com/Cn5Z4aqme1
— Redwood City Fire (@redwoodcityfire) December 17, 2013
Hours after the flames broke out during the November blaze, the smoke began settling miles away, in places like downtown Menlo Park.
"We believe that the public knows that that recycling is an inherent public good, and that operating a facility of this size has risks," Cohen said. "But the timing of these two fires raises concerns."
That's why after the November fire, the company said it made a "number of improvements designed to reduce the risk of fires at this facility," including reducing stockpile size, separating light iron from auto bodies, improving fire breaks, and implementing infrared monitoring of stockpiles.
Sims also established a facility review procedure for our after-hours security force to observe and report unusual activity at the facility, according to the statement.
The same building caught fire back in 2007, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a public nuisance violation because of the large quantities of contaminates.
Sims shreds recycled metal to ship overseas and the company touts its commitment to the environment and social responsibility. Its website states that its facilities are located in 23 states. Last month, the New York Times reported that a Sims facility will open at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.
NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit found that since 2007, there have been five major fires at the biggest metal recyclers in the Bay Area, Sims and Schnitzer Steel, which erupted in Oakland, Hayward, San Francisco and twice in Redwood City.
"We are still investigating the last fire," Cohen told NBC Bay Area. "And we are investigating this fire, and we cannot determine a cause. But we are not going to leave any stone unturned. We are going to uncover what is going on. We need to understand why these fires are happening just as much as the public would like us to tell them."