Rain extinguishes days-old blaze at LaFayette's Barwick Mills

EPA is packing up to head back to Atlanta

Men stand looking at the burned wreckage of the Barwick Mills building Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, three days after a fire destroyed much of the building in Lafayette, Ga. The EPA has been taking air samples to assess the impact of the fire.

Torrential rain finally snuffed out the four-day-old fire at LaFayette's abandoned Barwick Mills plant on Wednesday.

The mothballed manufacturing plant is now half of its original 900,000-square-foot size, and the building has suffered extensive smoke and roof damage, but the flames that burned since Saturday are officially extinguished, officials said.

Fire officials are still working to determine what caused the fire, but the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the air quality is now safe for those suffering from lung ailments.

Carter Williamson, the EPA's on-scene coordinator, said the agency's air quality teams returned to Atlanta this evening, and others will return in the morning.

Water quality readings will take longer to analyze.

The EPA has collected approximately 20,000 air quality samples since arriving on the fire scene at 5 p.m. Saturday, Williamson said.

The sprawling Barwick Mills site initially caught fire around 2 p.m. Saturday, drawing a response fire departments across the region. The EPA arrived that same day to monitor the air amid concerns about hazardous smoke from the blaze.

As the mill burned, the EPA's air quality tests showed higher-than-average particulates in the air, and officials asked some residents to stay indoors.

Brian Engler, an EPA manager who responded to the blaze, said early Sunday evening the elevated readings were due to incomplete combustion, which occurred because a portion of fallen roof was covering part of the fire and preventing it from being extinguished.

photo Men stand looking at the burned wreckage of the Barwick Mills building Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, three days after a fire destroyed much of the building in Lafayette, Ga. The EPA has been taking air samples to assess the impact of the fire.
photo Men stand looking at the burned wreckage of the Barwick Mills building Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, three days after a fire destroyed much of the building in Lafayette, Ga. The EPA has been taking air samples to assess the impact of the fire.

Officials had said earlier Sunday that initial tests indicated were that there was no risk to human health, except for those with respiratory issues.

Tests for asbestos in the air also came back negative.

"The air quality is OK now," said Williamson. "It spiked ... there were unhealthy conditions for a while."

Most old textile mills were shuttered years ago amid foreign competition and were either repurposed or left to rot. Barwick Mills officially closed in the 1990s. The site was declared a brownfield, turned into a warehouse and put on the market, though it was also floated as a destination for several other controversial ventures, including fish farming and bottled-water manufacturing.

"It was the main mill for the town for a long time," said Williamson. "It began in 1945 [and closed in the 1990s]. It was one of the biggest carpet mills in the United States. People were using it [presently] for other things like manufacturing storage."

Now that the smoke has settled, Williamson said EPA will be back in the coming weeks to assist in the remediation on-site.

"We will provide guidance and direction to the entities that own the mill to make sure the proper actions are taken to remediate the site," said Williamson. "We won't clean it up ourselves. The individuals that own the property will clean it up. A lot of older buildings have asbestos, so they will have to sample for it."

About 20 residents attended a community forum on Tuesday night in the Walker County library to ask questions of the EPA.

"We gave the community the opportunity to come and ask questions about their health and the site," said Angela Miller. "We educated them and addressed their concerns. The fire is out, the smoke is gone and it's back to normal. We've had a good, steady rain all day."

Email Katie Ward at kward@timesfreepress.com