PASSAIC – A chemical fire with 11 alarms set off plumes of smoke and drew several mutual aid departments into the city on a cold Friday night.
Mayor Hector Lora said most of the fire is in the Majestic Industries portion of the property, but that portion has also spread to Qualco’s chemical plant at 225 Passaic St., Mayor Hector Lora said.
Lora said the fire had already spread to several buildings and they expected the entire structure to be lost. He noted that although the fire had not yet reached the chemical storage area, occasional pops and small explosions indicated it was getting closer.
“There have been severe fires, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Residents were evacuated from the immediate vicinity of the fire and advised everyone in the area to close their windows. Passaic Street from First Street to Main Avenue was closed to traffic and Route 21 in both directions.
“I ask residents to keep your windows closed while our fire and emergency services assess the extent of this fire,” Lora said. “We ask all residents to stay as far away as possible. This is a chemical fire. You will see the color in the sky.”
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Governor Phil Murphy echoed that sentiment on social media, posting that he urged “everyone in Passaic to stay safe as firefighters fight a major eight-alarm fire at a chemical plant off Route 21.”
“If you live in the area, keep your windows closed,” Murphy said. “Pray for the safety of our first responders on the scene.”
Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said about 200 firefighters from across Essex, Bergen and Passaic counties.
“This is certainly not under control, but we are doing everything we can to contain it,” he said.
Trentacost said his department has been in contact with Passaic Valley Water to ensure adequate water pressure and that fire boats from other departments were also en route.
Lora said a firefighter was taken to hospital with injuries.
Residents seemed to heed those warnings along Fourth Street, as the area was empty at about 10:30 p.m.
The overwhelming smell of smoke and chemicals, especially chlorine, was enough to make people’s eyes water as far as Wallington after the winds started blowing at about 10pm. Large embers and jets of water also float across the river.
Lora stressed that it was under review but it was important to stay away as it was a chemical fire.
“There are a lot of firefighters, a lot of police officers coming out to make sure people are evacuated from the immediate area,” Lora said. “As this is a chemical fire, we are very concerned for the health and safety of people in the area.”
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Mutual aid from “basically everywhere” was in place and Lora said there were no reports of loss of life “so far”, but he was concerned about police, fire and emergency services.
The fire brigade is fighting the fire in freezing conditions. The city is now at 25 degrees, but chills are expected at night with winds of about 15 to 20 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
It will be about -10 to -5 degrees tonight until mid to late Saturday morning.
Lora expects residents to be evacuated from the area and is working to set up a shelter in the city for the displaced. Nearby Wallington sent a warning to their residents advising them to stay indoors with windows closed and watch out for large embers spilling over the river. East Rutherford also posted that “swinging winds could allow smoke from the working fire at a chemical plant in Passaic to pass over parts of the borough” and encouraged residents to stay indoors until the fire is under control.
Qualco, the site of the fire, manufactures and distributes chemicals used to treat swimming pools and spas. They have been based in the city for over 30 years.
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Despite the cold temperatures, January fires have ravaged North Jersey in recent years. A massive fire destroyed the fiber recycling plant on the Atlantic coast on January 30 last year. In that case, firefighters braved the brutal cold overnight and into the next day to put out the fire, which engulfed an entire city block, veiling the city skyline with smoke. There were at least two explosions at the site.
And two years earlier, on January 30, 2019, the landscape of nearby Elmwood Park was changed forever when a ten-alarm fire razed the historic Marcal Paper Mill to the ground. By the end of the night, 30 of the 36 buildings on the site had been either damaged or destroyed. The Marcal sign that painted the Elmwood Park portion of Route 80 red for decades was also famously destroyed.
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Katie Sobko is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, subscribe today or activate your digital account.