HENDRICKS COUNTY — Investigators are still trying to figure out what started a massive fire on Wednesday at a Walmart distribution center in Plainfield that was still burning more than 24 hours later.
Firefighters from at least 24 fire departments were called to the scene Wednesday afternoon to begin battling the blaze.
The fire was quickly upgraded to a 5-alarm as it spread throughout the building.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued an air quality alert for Boone, Hamilton, Hendricks and Marion counties, encouraging people to stay inside.
IDEM said the fire was causing air quality issues that could pose a risk to people, especially with underlying health issues. IDEM and the Environmental Protection Agency are still testing debris and ashes to see if they are releasing toxic materials.
IDEM says the wind will continue to blow the smoke to the northeast. Conditions are expected to improve overnight Thursday into Friday.
Meanwhile, remaining crews are awaiting heavy equipment that will allow them to access some of the areas that are still smoldering, said Plainfield Fire Chief Brent Anderson.
"I expect it to take at least another 12 hours after the arrival of that equipment to declare the fire out and allow investigators to begin their process. Fire units will remain to assist investigators as needed after the fire is extinguished," Anderson said.
Walmart had 1,000 employees inside at the time the fire broke out, Plainfield Police Department Deputy Chief Joe Aldridge said.
No injuries have been reported at this time. All firefighters and employees were able to make it safely out of the building.
Stephanie McFarland, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesperson said the agency is investigating for workplace safety.
"IOSHA is not aware at this time of any reportable worker injuries, fatalities or illnesses related to the Walmart Distribution Centers' fire in Plainfield. However, out of an abundance of caution and given the magnitude of the situation, IOSHA is initiating a safety-compliance inspection," McFarland said.
A safety-compliance inspection can take up to six months to complete, McFarland said.
"We’re thankful to local emergency crews for their quick response and for helping us account for the safety of our associates and those at the facility," a statement from Walmart read. "We’ll continue working with police and fire personnel and are referring all questions to them."
The American Red Cross arrived on the scene around 8 p.m. Wednesday to provide food and water to firefighters. They told WRTV they have heard dozens and dozens of explosions since they arrived.
Neighboring facilities were evacuated Wednesday afternoon, Aldridge said they had to use caution because of the wind.
Smoke from the fire could be seen from downtown Indianapolis and multiple surrounding counties.
Hendricks County fire visible for miles! Winds aren’t too strong. That’s allowing smoke to rise and not hug the ground. Let me know if you see it and your location. pic.twitter.com/zKY1oSoxj7— Kevin Gregory (@KevinGWRTV) March 16, 2022
The Town of Plainfield was receiving so many calls that they had to ask people not to call the dispatch center unless there was an emergency.
The Town of Avon said County Road 100 South between 900E Smith Road and Ronald Reagan is closed until further notice. The roadway could be closed for a couple of days.
Mike Pruitt, the deputy chief at the Bargersville Fire Department, said people should avoid handling debris falling in the area from the fire.
"These burnt materials can contain toxic carcinogens," he tweeted. "This is the very reason firefighters where protective gear and respiratory protection. Just avoid it. I'm quite certain that health officials will be addressing these issues as this plays out."
The smoke was showing up on the weather radar and was moving north away from the airport.
Expanding smoke plume visible on radar from just after 1 pm until 2:30 or so. As smoke rises wind direction is changing to southwest and west curving the path of smoke to the northeast over time. pic.twitter.com/tSvmFXTVZn— Kevin Gregory (@KevinGWRTV) March 16, 2022
Once they are able to get inside they will be to start trying to determine what caused the fire, Anderson said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Anderson said the operation could be ongoing for the next 24 hours or so.
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security confirmed it sent investigators to the scene.
In a tweet, the ATF confirmed it also sent fire investigators to the scene. Anderson said they will be the lead investigative agency.
"We have two investigators on the scene," David Hosick, director of public affairs for IDHS, said. "That should not indicate it is suspicious in any way. No reason to think that."
Hosick said he was notified Walmart worked to get transportation and food to employees. Many had to leave without their keys and cannot leave the area.
"This will be a situation where investigators likely will not be able to get into the building until tomorrow," Hosick said on Wednesday.
Charles Crowson, a spokesperson for Walmart, said all employees at the facility will be paid for 40 hours this week, including any overtime due. This will allow them to assess what to do next week, including any possible temporary reassignments to neighboring locations.
"We are going to find places for our associates to work," Crowson said.
A Walmart spokesperson told WRTV Thursday they are working to place employees at other stores, warehouses or fulfillment centers - either Sam's Club or Walmart. The company is using a nearby hotel as its command center to provide assistance and guidance to employees.
The spokesperson said the company has its active emergency plans.
The fire impacted around seven bus routes Wednesday for students of Avon Community School Corporation, according to Kevin Carr, communications coordinator for the district. There's no apparent impact to bus routes as of Thursday morning.
The Town of Plainfield released the following statement Thursday:
The Town of Plainfield continues to support the first responders who are still working to put out hot spots at the Walmart Distribution Center fire. We are relieved and grateful there were no injuries due to the structure fire. The Town of Plainfield would like to commend the plans and efforts of Walmart and fire personnel for assuring we maintained safety of life first and foremost.
The number of agencies who have and are still assisting our local fire territory with this effort is overwhelming. We also had a large amount of donations from local businesses and restaurants and that generosity speaks volumes about the community in which we live.
We will continue to support the leading agencies of this ongoing investigation and will follow their guidance going forward.