A shelter-in-place order across areas of Richmond was lifted Wednesday morning after firefighters managed to gain control of a blaze that sparked at a scrap metal facility Tuesday afternoon, according to fire officials.
Air quality officials and environmental health officers were at the scene Wednesday to assess what nearby residents were exposed to, and it wasn't good news.
"I literally couldn’t breathe," Mayor Tom Butt said. "I’ve lived here in Richmond for 45 years, and this is the worst air related problem I’ve ever seen. It was far worse than the Chevron Fire of 2012."
The blaze at Sim's Metal Management, which is located at 600 S. Fourth St., was first reported at 5:08 p.m. Tuesday, Capt. Rico Rincon said. Roughly 11 hours later, the Richmond Fire Department announced that the blaze was under control.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District had personnel at the scene Wednesday, along with the Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Incident Response Team and county air district personnel, providing first responders with public complaint records and information about what to expect from the weather.
District personnel monitoring on-site air quality found high levels of particulate matter from burning metal and plastic.
The county’s health and hazardous materials team used meters to measure the particulates. They said levels were 100 times more than what’s considered hazardous. More tests are underway to figure out what chemicals may also have been in the air.
"The things we know they were breathing in very fine particles of smoke," said Randy Sawyer, chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer. "They’re so fine, they can go right through the lungs and into the blood."
Residents in neighborhoods near the scrap yard were asked to shelter in place after a pile of scrap metal about 20 feet high somehow caught fire. Those locations included 23rd Street to Harbour Way and Wright Avenue to Ohio Avenue.
Later Tuesday, officials expanded the shelter order to include the Santa Fe, Atchison Woods, Iron Triangle and North Richmond neighborhoods due to a change in wind direction. It was expanded yet again to the areas between Garrard Boulevard to the west, Ohio Street to the north, First Street to the east and West Cutting Boulevard to the south, officials said.
Additionally, residents were being advised to close windows and doors and turn off their HVAC.
At the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, toll booth operators also took shelter because of the smoke late Tuesday night, but the bridge remained open, officials said. Toll booth operators returned to their posts in time for the Wednesday morning commute.
The fire remained under investigation.
Bay City News contributed to this report.