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Multiple fire departments battle fire at Holmes Iron & Metal salvage yard in East Spencer

EAST SPENCER — Large plumes of black smoke could be seen from miles Wednesday as firefighters from multiple departments battled a massive fire at Holmes Iron & Metal, a salvage yard that’s been a fixture in East Spencer for more than 40 years.

The fire began about 11 a.m. Wednesday and burned for much of the day. A car that was recently brought in for scrap sparked and caused the fire, employees said.

The business, located at 629 N Long St., is less than a mile from Town Hall and the East Spencer Fire Department.

Fire Division Chief David Morris said during a media briefing that the fire call was immediately upgraded with a request for additional responders.

An estimated 100 to 125 fire personnel were on scene during the five-alarm fire. In addition to numerous fire departments from Rowan County, firefighters from Davidson County and the Charlotte Regional HazMat Team responded. The Rowan-Salisbury HazMat Team was also on hand.

“There is a massive amount of water needed for this type of incident,” Morris said. “We did utilize the municipal water system, and we also put in place a tanker shuttle to provide us with additional water.”

He said firefighters applied between 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water per minute and would need that much water to keep the fire from spreading.

“The biggest concern that we had was obviously (an electrical) substation located nearby. We also had a hazardous materials tank — a liquid oxygen tank that was under pressure and full that we focused our attention on protecting those two exposures,” he said.

“The firefighters, Chief (Shawn) McBride and his staff did an excellent job of protecting those exposures, and we were actually able to keep the fire off the liquid oxygen tank and keep the fire from reaching the substation,” Morris said.

There was damage to the substation, but it was minimal, he said.

“It’s controlled. It’s contained. There are no hazardous materials that were released,” Morris said.

He said firefighters would continue to pour water on the fire through the night. Crews moved vehicles and other material from the seat of the fire and sprayed water on it.

Morris said one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion. Another firefighter was reportedly injured while detaching a hose from a tanker. He received a serious gash on his forearm when he was struck by the hose.

Duke Energy District Manager Randy Welch said a few utility poles were damaged and crews were on the scene to make assessments about replacing them.

Welch said power was out to about 1,400 customers, but about 800 of those were expected to have power restored fairly quickly. Crews began working to restore power once firefighters doused the flames near a substation at North Long Street. Duke Energy officials anticipated all fire-related outages to be restored between midnight and 7 a.m., depending on fire activity.

Welch said he didn’t believe there was significant damage to the substation, but crews were assessing the extent of damage.

The Red Cross opened a shelter for anyone who had to be evacuated, said Sheila Crunkleton, executive director of the Southern Piedmont Chapter. (The shelter closed at 9 a.m., Thursday, with all residents returning to their homes.)

“Our volunteers stand ready to assist both the families impacted and the responders working under extreme conditions, and we will continue to support these efforts as long as needed,” Crunkleton said.

First responders were supported with food and beverages. Volunteers from across the Red Cross Greater Carolinas Region supported the Southern Piedmont Chapter volunteers, Red Cross officials said.

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Scrapyard employee KJ Cain described the scene that unfolded Wednesday morning. He said a truck driver saw smoke on top of the car pile and they thought it might be a battery in the vehicle or possibly other flammable material left in the car, such as a cigarette.

“By the time we got back there, the fire was already 13 or 14 feet high,” Cain said.

He said employees tried to douse the fire themselves with buckets of water and fire extinguishers but it was beyond their control so they called the fire department.

“It’s nothing like I’ve seen before. Something like a volcano … a big mushroom cloud of smoke,” Cain said.

Cain, who has worked at the company for nearly a year, said he’s never seen anything like it before. He described the intense heat from the flames that reached the office on the other side of the yard. Once the flames grew beyond the height of the car pile, all the employees evacuated, he said.

“I’m really thankful,” he said, noting that no employees were injured, “because it could’ve been real tragic.”

Co-owner Dwayne Holmes said one van caught fire and it spread to other cars in a nearby pile. He estimates there were about 500 to 600 cars on that large pile.

He said there were about 20 employees at work at the time of the fire and that he is grateful the fire was contained and for the support and aid of the fire departments and emergency responders.

Daniel Matangira, whose father-in-law and brother-in-law own the business, said an employee was pulling in a van that sparked.

He said it’s amazing how quickly the fire spread, but “each time you mix electrical and fire with the gas tanks that are there from cars, the refrigerators, the insulation that is there, it really is a cause for disaster.”

“Unfortunately, it’s one of those incidents that nobody saw coming,” Matangira said.

He said he appreciates prayers and is thankful for the responders and that no employees were injured.

Ginger Nicholas and her husband were heading to Auto Zone when they saw the smoke. The couple initially thought a train had caught fire.

They continued to drive and determined it was the salvage yard, a place where they’ve taken items for scrap.

“I wouldn’t think it would spread that quick,” Nicholas said.

She described hearing gas tanks and other flammable material exploding. She was in awe of the size and intensity of the flames.

Fire officials estimated it would take much of Wednesday night and possibly this morning to continue to douse lingering flames until the fire is extinguished. Fire officials cautioned motorists traveling in the area to use caution.

A shelter-in-place order was issued for residents in the path of the smoke, who are encouraged to close their windows and doors. The Hanford Dole Chapter of the American Red Cross set up a shelter at J.F. Hurley Family YMCA, 828 W. Jake Alexander Blvd.

City officials said any residents who want to evacuate could stay overnight at the shelter with priority given to the elderly and those with special needs. Red Cross personnel were expected to keep the shelter open overnight for residents without power because of the smoke conditions.

Residents in need of transportation to the Hurley YMCA can call -704-216-8503 and should go to the East Spencer Fire Department.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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