It's been almost six months since Chattooga County, Ga., was hit by its largest fire in three decades, when more than 400 firefighters battled a blaze at a plastics recycling plant in Berryton, Ga.
One thing has changed since then: The North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has whittled down its stockpile of a potentially toxic type of plastic: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
When PVC burns and firefighters spray water on it, a cloud of chlorine gas can result.
A handful of firefighters kept flames away from a warehouse full of PVC plastic after the three-day fire began on the night of July 27. The big blaze mainly consumed plastics consisting of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is less harmful than polyvinyl chloride.
Since the fire, North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has reduced the amount of PVC at the recycling facility in the old Berryton yarn mill three miles southwest of Summerville, Ga.
"We ran down our inventory quite a bit on that particular item," said Ed Ledford, company owner.
There are no issues with air or water quality at the site, according to a statement released by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
As for what caused the conflagration, Ledford said his insurance company blamed Mother Nature.
"The paperwork said 'lightning,'" he said.
More than 400 firefighters and emergency personnel from 50 agencies responded to the fire, among them Walker County, Ga., firefighters who were there around the clock.
Under a Tri State Mutual Aid Association agreement, firefighters from 40 agencies in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama help one another free of charge.
"We don't send a bill when we operate under mutual aid," Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said. "We've all signed an agreement to help each other out when called upon."
An assisting fire agency might charge for special items, such as foam used to fight fires, he said. The hosting government is expected to provide staples such as fuel and food for firefighters.
Camp hasn't calculated the cost of having his firefighters help out at the recycling plant blaze.
"No. I've never done a cost of what we spent as far as people," he said. "We have the staff, anyway. We have staffing each day that we maintain."
Employees' pay and overtime aren't a major concern for Summerville Fire Chief Greg Echols, because only four of his firefighters are paid and 16 are unpaid volunteers.
"I'm a volunteer chief," said Echols, who's self-employed and earns his living doing electrical work.
If a volunteer Georgia firefighter sticks around long enough, he or she can get a pension. Summerville pays $15 per month into a state pension plan that now pays more than $800 per month for a firefighter who has served for 25 years and is at least 55 years old.
"They get a retirement [payment] out of it, is what they get," Echols said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was among the agencies that responded to the fire. It did submit a bill.
"We do what we call 'cost recovery,'" said the EPA's on-scene coordinator at the fire, Leo Francendese.
He didn't know the exact figure Monday but estimated it was about $100,000.
Ledford said his insurance covered costs, but his business took a financial hit in the fire.
"We had insurance, and they covered what they were going to cover," he said.
He's considering building a new structure to replace the old, brick mill building lost in the blaze. Ledford's recycling business, founded in 1970, also has facilities near Calhoun and LaFayette.
"You can't just sit back and say 'woe is me,'" Ledford said of the huge fire. "It's just life. It throws you curves."
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...