WEST PARIS, Maine — Ernie Yap, owner of West Paris Metals, said Friday that the fire at his scrap yard earlier this week was “a wake-up call” to implement safety measures at his business.
On Monday, firefighters from more than 10 towns spent five hours battling an inferno that torched 41 junked vehicles stacked in piles in the far eastern end of the yard on Maple Street.
West Paris firefighters have responded to Yap’s business for fires multiple times in the past few years, but the scale of the fire this week has the department pushing for more safety measures from Yap.
Both Yap and West Paris Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre said Monday’s fire was by far the biggest and most dangerous at the scrap yard.
The fire was caused when sparks from an employee cutting a snowplow frame off a vehicle caught surrounding vehicles and spread out of control.
On Friday, St. Pierre said crews arriving at the scene had to immediately hose down and remove three unmarked 55-gallon barrels filled with gasoline and other fluids that were about 4 feet away from where an employee was cutting apart vehicles with a torch.
“It could have exploded at any time, all three of them were full,” St. Pierre said. “We could smell the gasoline for quite some time.”
Firefighters also had to remove four other five-gallon buckets filled with gas and other liquids in the vicinity of the cutting area, St. Pierre said.
The employee using the torch told firefighters a small fire had started earlier the same day but was extinguished, St. Pierre reported.
Under different circumstances, the blaze could have been much worse, he said.
In drier weather, the fire would easily have spread into the forested hillside that forms the scrapyard’s northern border; if wind direction had changed, blowing the heavy, toxic smoke into downtown, there would have had to be an evacuation, St. Pierre warned.
Yap met with selectmen and St. Pierre on Thursday evening to go over safety guidelines the department is requiring for the yard.
Yap is being asked to widen the access road to the rear of the yard, where the junked cars are stored and to create 10-foot firebreaks between the 20-vehicle stacks.
The department is also requiring that hazardous materials be properly labeled and stored safely away from work areas, a safety watch is utilized to monitor possible fires, and that flammable materials are covered with fire retardant blankets when workers are using cutting torches.
Finally, Yap is being asked to individually move vehicles or other materials that are being cut apart onto a concrete pad set away from combustible materials.
On Friday, Yap said the issues would be addressed as soon as the remaining vehicles in the yard were removed, which he estimated would take about 60 days.
Yap has been in operation on Maple Street for 20 years, and Monday’s fire was the biggest ever to hit his yard, he noted.
“We’ve had fires with one car or two cars, never 40,” he said.
The yard has a concrete pad where vehicles are placed to be cut apart, but it hasn’t been using it, Yap explained. Because he’s never experienced a conflagration like Monday’s fire, the safety precautions outlined by St. Pierre weren’t taken, he said.
In his letter to Yap, St. Pierre said the department will be checking on the yard monthly. Conforming to the guidelines will also determine if selectmen decide to reapprove Yap’s junkyard permit when it expires in September, he noted.
“It’s either he complies for the safety of the town, his employees and us or he doesn’t function,” St. Pierre said.
He seemed confident, however, that Yap would bring his business into line.
“He’s that type of person,” St. Pierre said. “You ask anything of him, he’ll help you out, so I’m not highly concerned.”