Fire at California Plastics Plant

An inferno raged at a plastics plant in Fairfield, California, on Tuesday. An Associated Press report carried in the Los Angeles Times said the fire broke out in the afternoon at an outdoor storage area of the Macro Plastics Inc. complex near Travis Air Force Base. No building damage or injuries were reported. Sixty firefighters and 21 vehicles from four neighboring fire departments were necessary to pour water on the blaze.

The article says:

Macro Plastics makes plastic bins used in harvesting grapes and other agricultural products. Stacks of the perforated plastic bins could be seen burning in footage from KCRA-TV in Sacramento.

According to Macro’s website, the containers are made from injection-molded polyethylene and polypropylene. The company launched them in the 1980s as a replacement for wooden crates used by grape and stone-fruit farmers.

The burning plastic produced thick, black hydrocarbon smoke and a very hot, swirling fire. Inspectors took air samples to be tested them for unusually toxic chemicals.

The cause of the fire was still being figured out when the AP report came out, but it’s known that employees can accidentally set off a fire while doing routine maintenance work that involves an open flame or torch. Indeed, that’s what happened, CBS13 later reported.

According to the AP report, the company said in a statement that all employees were evacuated unharmed and none of its buildings were damaged (which seems surprising given the size of the fire). The company didn’t issue an estimate of the dollar amount of the damage caused to the bins on Tuesday evening, which was when the AP report was released.

The Sacramento Bee has a photo gallery of the blaze. The photo gallery shows exactly how huge this fire was and how far the plumes of smoke went up into the air.

CBS13 reports:

The fire was so intense that it created its own weather system. Video of the fire showed what weather experts call ‘fire whirls’, which are literally fire tornados that can generate their own winds.

According to news reports (see YouTube video as an example), Macro Plastics has been cited for four violations in the past by the California arm of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) agency.

Source: “Plastics fire sends smoke hundreds of feet high,” Los Angeles Times, 07/26/11
Source: “Macro Plastics fire in Fairfield, CA, 26 July, 2011,” YouTube, 07/26/11

Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.