Fire in Becker scrap metal yard continues to send smoke over a wide area

A firefighter aims water down from a fire truck ladder.
Firefighters remain at the scene of a fire that has been burning for more than 24 hours at the Northern Metal Recycling plant Wednesday in Becker, Minn. Firefighter Toni Knutson says the fire is burning under a huge pile of cars. She says cranes are being used to remove the vehicles from the pile one by one.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 9:03 p.m.

After 40 hours battling a blaze in a scrap metal yard, fire crews in Becker, Minn. are changing tactics that they expect will create even more intense smoke conditions, as the fire is expected to burn for several more days.

A giant pile of junk cars started burning around 2 a.m. Tuesday at Northern Metal Recycling in Becker, about an hour northwest of Minneapolis.

On Wednesday night, a statement from the Becker Police Department said after consulting with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and other state agencies, firefighters and Northern Metal personnel are constructing a fire break between the burning stack of vehicles “in the hopes that the entire inventory of vehicles won’t burn.” The police department notes this could protect buildings and the plant’s main power source.

The battle against the huge blaze has “rapidly depleted” water available to surrounding fire departments. Letting the blaze burn may result in more “black smoke, but the plume is expected to rise higher into the air and travel farther before dissipating,” according to the statement.

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Citing “expected changes in wind direction,” Becker Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt said schools will be closed on Thursday as a precaution.

Firefighters from 18 departments have been battling freezing temperatures in an effort to put it out. So far no one has been ordered to evacuate, but people have been told to stay away.

Stephen Mikkelson, a spokesperson with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the plume is blowing away from Becker's residential areas. But he said those sensitive to smoke should avoid it.

"If you have respiratory conditions, and you're elderly or [you have] younger children, stay indoors as much as you can until the situation is calmed down a little more," he said.

Northern Metal Recycling plant fire.
A fire at the Northern Metal Recycling plant is seen burning Tuesday in Becker.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Mikkelson said staff arrived on scene shortly after the fire started.

"They also were providing some advice as far as best ways to manage runoff from the water they're using to fight the fire to make sure it doesn't leave the site and enter any area waterways." A later statement said there was “no concern about contamination at this point.”

Northern Metal moved its metal shredding facility from north Minneapolis to Becker last year as part of a $2.5 million settlement with the state.

The MPCA accused the company of violating its air quality permit and giving misleading information to regulators.

The scrap yard is in an industrial area near the Mississippi River.