NORTH ADAMS — Firefighters have contained the junkyard fire in North Adams that sent a black plume of smoke shooting into the sky Tuesday morning.
City residents were asked to stay indoors for several hours as the fire burned a pile of scrapped cars that sat about two stories high at George Apkin & Sons on State Street. About 40 firefighters fought the blaze around the junkyard and railroad tracks.
The city’s advisory was removed by 4 p.m., as firefighters contained the flames and state agencies reported “no significant air quality risks.”
At a news conference on Tuesday evening, North Adams Fire Chief Brent Lefebvre said he hoped the firefighting would be able to wrap up Wednesday.
“We got it knocked down to a point now where we can continue to apply foam and contain it,” Lefebvre said. “I’m really hoping that, with the aid of the operator that’s going to be pulling the pile apart, we should be able to kind of mop things up tomorrow.”
The fire was reported about 10 a.m. Tuesday. Officers at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts public safety office on Ashland Street heard a loud boom around or shortly after the start of the fire, according to MCLA Police Chief Daniel Colonno.
“It was so loud, it shook the building,” he said. “[An officer] could feel it in his chest.”
Though Lefebvre previously had stated that he thought a battery sparked the flames, he said on Tuesday evening that the fire was caused by a gas tank.
“The cause of the fire was basically an industrial operation,” he said. “They found a gas tank and a spark from the unit that was dismantling the car ignited the gas tank, causing the fire to spread.”
The flames spread through the pile of scrapped cars and car parts that stretched about 100 feet, sending black smoke into the air that could be seen across North County, from Williamstown to Cheshire.
Explosions could be heard from the site through the late morning and into the afternoon, but there were no injuries reported. Employees at the junkyard were able to evacuate safely.
Shortly after 11 a.m., the city sent out a robocall advising residents to close their windows and businesses to shut off their HVAC systems. At least one business in the area was advised by MCLA campus police to prepare to evacuate if the fire spread.
James Banks, who lives on Ashland Street, was told early on by firefighters to close his windows because of chemicals that were being burned.
“They told us to close windows in the back by [the] railroad tracks,” he said. “They told us it’s chemicals.”
Cumberland Farms shut down its gas pumps after embers and smoke from the fire blew onto the property, employees told The Eagle.
Embers from the fire have spread around the area, including to railroad tracks near the junkyard, and neighbors have been stomping them out, according to Colonno. Some embers landed on neighboring properties along Ashland Street, and MCLA police assisted firefighters by putting out any blazes while using fire extinguishers.
Firefighters on Ashland Street appeared to struggle with hydrants, though it was not clear why. They eventually ran as much as several hundred feet of hose from a hydrant on the MCLA campus to a ladder truck in the parking lot beside the campus police office.
On Tuesday evening, Lefebvre told reporters that “one hydrant” had caused problems but that he had not yet received information about the issues from the Water Department, which had helped firefighters Tuesday morning.
“The Water Department responded right away and got them hooked up to a hydrant that was working,” Lefebvre said.
Even while connected to functioning hydrants, the city also needed support from tankers provided by neighboring municipalities, Lefebvre told reporters.
“We don’t have an adequate supply of water in that area,” he said. “Because of the location, we just need more water.”
Departments from across the region joined the effort, including crew from Adams, Clarksburg, Florida, Hinsdale, Lanesborough and Williamstown, with additional support from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s air quality monitoring team and the state Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Division.
Many firefighters at the scene, including the volunteer crews, were just over a week out from intense efforts to contain a record wildland fire in Clarksburg State Forest.
Preliminary assessments by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Fire Services “indicate no significant air quality risks to the community from the fire,” Mayor Tom Bernard said, and monitoring was set to continue.
Lefebvre said the fire took a long time to put out because of the materials in the junkyard.
“It’s a large pile of cars that have been scrapped and disassembled,” he said. “It’s every material inside a vehicle. Plastic, foam, metal, everything. It’s [hard to extinguish] because there is magnesium in there as well. And magnesium in a reactant to water; that’s keeping things kind of hot.”
Several officials and observers at the scene suggested that tires could be causing the explosions. Lefebvre noted that fuel and tires typically are removed from the pile of scrap cars and kept separately, “but is it a scrap yard.”
Eagle staff writers Danny Jin and Scott Stafford contributed to this report.