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Following massive Walmart blaze, safety and medical experts offer advice for cleaning up fallen debris

A day after the huge fire, neither IDEM, the EPA nor Plainfield fire officials have provided additional guidance or advice about debris cleanup.

PLAINFIELD, Ind. — The Inman family lives 10 miles north of the Walmart fulfillment center in Plainfield, but they still got a good look at the massive blaze that launched plumes of thick, black smoke into the air for hours.

Thursday morning, 8-year-old William Inman was still talking about the fire while playing with his siblings in their northwest Indianapolis back yard.

"It was a humungous fire," he said, holding his hands wide apart. "There was so much smoke it created clouds."

A day later, William and his family now have some unwanted souvenirs from the fire, scattered all over their lawn.

"It's crazy. I kind of thought these were more leaves on the ground, and then I realized those aren't black leaves. They are ash," said William's mother, Carmen, as she looked around the yard. "I don't want my kids putting it in their mouths obviously."

Credit: WTHR
Isabelle Inman inspects a small piece of charred debris from the Walmart distribution center fire that landed in her back yard.

That ash is now heavily sprinkled throughout neighborhoods all over town. And the concern isn't just for kids. It's also for pets.

Julie Graham's dog, Boiler, quickly noticed the black debris scattered across sidewalks, lawns and streets during his morning walk.

"He nosed around and I kind of pulled him back because I wasn't sure if it was safe for him to investigate or not," Graham told 13News. "There's a lot of it in our yard, and when you look around, it's everywhere."

Leave it alone or clean it up?

As the fire was still raging, some fire officials warned the fallen ash could be toxic and they urged residents to just leave it alone.

"Don't touch any debris that may be in your yard," Plainfield Fire Chief Brent Anderson said late Wednesday afternoon. "IDEM is here now and the EPA is involved, and they are doing testing and we'll get you those results as soon as we can."

Credit: WTHR
Safety experts recommend not picking up pieces of fallen debris with your bare hands to avoid exposure to potential toxins.

A day later, those test results are not in. Neither IDEM, the EPA nor Plainfield fire officials have provided additional guidance or advice.

13News asked a longtime firefighter what advice he provides to nearby residents after a big fire results in fallen ash.

"Cleanup is important," said Brownsburg fire marshal Steve Jones, who has been in the fire service for nearly 40 years. "When you have a fire that drops ash everywhere — in multiple counties — no one's going to [clean it up] for you. I tell people not to leave it just lying around."

Because it is often unknown whether fallen debris from a fire might contain carcinogens, Jones said it is important to take safety precautions and not to touch it with your bare hands. But he said most residents probably have all the tools they need to safely clean up such debris on their own.

"You don't want to leave it in the yard where your kids are playing, where your pets will get into it," he said. "Everyone's been wearing your COVID mask. Just put on your COVID mask and put on some latex or nitrile gloves and just pick it up, put in a trash bag and dispose of it in your regular trash. That will be perfectly fine."

Jones said if fallen debris from a fire does contain toxic compounds, the biggest risk comes from breathing in or touching those toxins, so a mask and gloves provide good protection. He also said if children or pets do touch fallen debris from a fire, it's important to wash their hands or paws quickly to prevent the risk of toxin exposure.

"We know everything that gets on kids' hands tends to end up in their mouths, and we don't want that to happen, so I'd suggest to get that [debris] cleaned up so your family can go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather we're having," he said.

With air quality levels still poor because of Wednesday's fire, health experts say it might be a good idea to limit time outside Thursday for anyone who suffers from respiratory problems.

Advice for pet owners

Veterinarians said the same holds true for pets.

"Don't leave their food or water bowls outside," said Dr. Randy Cross, medical director at Veterinary Centers of America. He also suggested watching pets closely if they are exercising outdoors during poor air quality conditions to determine if they are coughing more than usual or showing signs of labored breathing.

Thomas Dock, director of communications for Noah's Animal Hospitals had additional suggestions for pet owners now dealing with fallen ash from the Walmart fire.

Credit: WTHR
Julie Graham’s dog, Boiler, sniffs a piece of fallen debris from the Walmart distribution center. That debris landed in Graham's Indianapolis neighborhood 12 miles away.

"While we don't have exact knowledge of the composition of this material, it can be assumed that if first responders are warning people not to handle it, our pets should not come in contact with it either," he told 13News. "If ash has fallen in your backyard, please consider walking your pet instead of letting them roam the backyard unsupervised. When walking, a 6-foot nylon lead is a much better option than the 20-30 foot flexi-leads. The flexible leads will allow your pet far too much laxity in their ability to move away from you."

If your pet does ingest ash from the fire, Dock recommends contacting a local veterinarian, emergency hospital or a pet poison helpline. He said helplines are available by dialing 855-764-7661, 800-213-6680 or 888-426-4435.

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