"Most of the fire is knocked down, and we're just checking for hot spots," Auburn Fire Chief Wayne Werts said late Monday night. "We don't believe anything will flare back up, but there are still some hot spots in the incinerator area."
Earlier in the evening, emergency crews also activated the county's reverse 911 system to alert neighborhoods surrounding the plant of potential danger from the plumes of black smoke coming from the facility's roof. Residents were not evacuated, but asked to remain indoors with their windows closed and air conditioning turned off.
The fire was reported at 6:30 p.m. and more than 65 firefighters from Auburn, Lewiston, New Gloucester, Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot remained on scene for hours. Werts said the blaze broke out in duct work that runs the length of the building and is used as a collection chute that carries byproduct from one of the processes used at the plant to a disposal storage unit.
Due to the heat and humidity, Werts said that fire crews were rotated in and out of battling the blaze and checking for hot spots every 30 minutes.
By late evening, Werts said that any potential danger had been averted and that the county's COBRA hazardous material team reported that air quality levels were back to normal. He added that the reason for the initial automated calls to residents came from the fact that crews were not sure what chemicals were involved in the fire.
"There's stuff in there that once it starts, you can't stop it," said Eric Henson, an employee of the plant who was just showing up for second shift when the fire started.
Employees on the second shift were sent home for the evening, and plant officials cancelled the third shift. Werts said it was unclear whether or not all or just part of the plant will reopen Tuesday.
Werts said the State Fire Marshal's Office was there to help determine the cause of the blaze. As of late Monday night, he said that investigators did not have a reason why the material in the duct work overheated and caught fire.
"Yeah, I'm nervous because I know the chemicals that are in there," said Peggy Gray, 61, who not only works at the plant, but also lives within a mile of it. "I'm antsy because you just never know. If this place blows up, it could land in my kitchen."
Justin Ramsey, 28, of Lewiston, was working in the plant's fabrication department when the emergency sirens sounded. He said employees at first thought it was a fire drill, but soon realized it was the real deal when they heard a call for the plant's emergency crew to respond for a "fire on the roof." Seconds later, he said a second emergency tone ordered employees to evacuate the facility.
"We were freaked out because we know there are big holding tanks out back," Ramsey said. "It could have been a lot worse."
Werts credited plant officials with being very proactive in terms of fire safety. He said everything in the facility was up to code and that regular fire drills are held at the facility. The plant also works directly with the Fire Department to hold specialized trainings on site for employees