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Clouds of billowing black smoke are filling the skies over North Knoxville as fire personnel scramble to extinguish a blaze at the Fort Loudoun Waste & Recycling facility at 2742 Hancock Street.

Knoxville Fire Captain D.J. Corcoran said crews believe the fire, which now covers acres of land, was ignited when a piece of heavy equipment, possibly a forklift, backfired and threw a spark. The initial fire call came in shortly after 1:00 local time this afternoon.

Miraculously, no injuries have been reported; 25 workers at the plant were safely evacuated.

Knoxville police issued mandatory evacuations along Morelia Avenue, from Cornelia to Pershing streets, and are directing all evacuees to the Emerald Youth Foundation at 1719 North Central Street. So far, about 65 homes have been evacuated. Buses are on standby at the corner of Atlantic and Pershing to transport people to the evacuation center.

Officials with the local Salvation Army have also announced they’ve opened their air-conditioned gym, and staff are prepared to provide water and dinner to anyone displaced by the fire. They do ask anyone who comes to bring a pillow and blanket.

Knoxville television stations are reporting police have closed off the following roads in the area:

  • Pershing at Cedar
  • Pershing at Atlantic
  • Pershing at W. Morelia
  • Pershing at Radford
  • Radford at W. Glenwood
  • Burwell at Harvey
  • Burwell at Hancock
  • Burwell at Cornelia
  • Morelia at Cornelia
  • North Street at McMillan

Corcoran said the blaze is difficult to battle because it’s not a typical structure fire; the recycling materials are fueling the flames. And the thick black smoke pouring from the scene is due to toxic chemicals being released from burning plastic and rubber at the plant. Corcoran said the blaze could take days to put out.

Fire crews have brought in an excavator to help locate the source of the fire. They say the sounds of explosions near the fire are most likely from propane tanks.

The Knox County Health Department said the fire and resulting smoke can pose health hazards, including difficult breathing and chest pain. But as of 4:20 local time, the health department had not issued an air quality alert.

Electricity and gas have been cut to some 700 homes in the vicinity as a precaution.

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