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Lithium batteries blamed for starting toxic Tacoma fire

caption: Smoke billows from a fire at the Simon Metals scrapyard in Tacoma on Monday.
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Smoke billows from a fire at the Simon Metals scrapyard in Tacoma on Monday.
Heather Leacy Photography

Firefighters spent 12 hours putting out a large fire at a Tacoma scrapyard Monday.

Air quality in much of Tacoma briefly soured to unhealthy levels in the morning, and residents reported headaches, nausea and watering eyes.

Firefighters suspect that lithium-ion batteries deep inside a 50-foot-tall pile of scrap metal spontaneously combusted and caused the blaze.

Toxic smoke from the fire at Simon Metals led the Port of Tacoma to suspend its operations for the morning.

The Tacoma Fire Department advised people to stay indoors and avoid inhaling the fumes.

"It definitely has affected people throughout Tacoma,” Shadrach White, who runs a software company about three miles as the crow flies from Simon Metals, said.

“It was strange. I’d never smelled anything like it,” he said. “It had a chemical smell to it. The first word that came to mind was ‘toxic.’"

White said he felt sick to his stomach after being in the smoke for only a minute.

The burning scrapyard is adjacent to the Northwest Detention Center, where up to 1,600 people are held for possible deportation.

"There are no impacts," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Tanya Roman said in a one-sentence email to KUOW.

Simon Metals crane operators assisted the firefighting effort by lifting debris up and away as firefighters hosed it down.

“They had to dig deep, maybe roughly 30 to 50 feet down, as the fire units were shooting it with the water,” Tacoma Fire battalion chief Lincoln Correa said.

He said a 911 call came in about 2 a.m. Monday, well after the fire began.

“For it to get this size, it looks like it might have started one to two days ago under that debris,” Correa said. “Then it just got bigger and bigger.”

Officials couldn't say what electronics or other materials burned that made this smoke different, or what toxic substances it may have contained.

Scrapped vehicles will often contain flammable items such as lubricants and plastics.

Simon Metals, in business at the site on Portland Avenue for 50 years, couldn't be reached for comment. An answering service said the business was closed Monday.

The soot was bad for only an hour or two, peaking at 9 a.m. at 36 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulates—a concentration considered “unhealthy for sensitive people” if they are exposed to it for 24 hours.

Tacoma had much sootier air—with three times the particulates, for days at a time—during this summer's forest fires.

Scrapyard fires in Seattle in June and July sent black smoke over much of the city. Pollution monitors showed those fires worsened the air less than the city's annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

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