Firefighters on Friday contained a massive warehouse fire that burned out of control for nearly 20 hours and generated so much smoke that it was detected by weather radars and forced some school closures.
The blaze did not pose an imminent public health threat, officials said. But schools were closed Friday in Hillsborough because of smoke from the blaze, and a stretch of Route 206, a major roadway, was closed for hours Thursday night.
The fire started around 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Veterans Industrial Park, sending black billowing columns of smoke into the sky, visible for dozens of miles.
"I couldn't believe how much there was and how fast it was moving," said resident Rebecca Claringbold. "It was scary."
Plastic pellets were being stored in most of the complex. Those pellets continued to burn even after officials contained the fire from spreading at about 11 a.m. Friday.
The complex once housed old military munitions and is near historic Duke Farms, the estate that belonged to the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke.
The weather posed challenges to firefighters almost immediately, said Hillsborough Fire Marshal Chris Weniger. Strong winds fueled the blaze Thursday afternoon, and cold temperatures lead to problems with freezing water.
Firefighters also had to be rotated in and out of service. One suffered a minor leg injury.
"We're getting a tremendous amount of support from our neighboring communities," Weniger said.
The fire raged overnight, and though some neighbors worried they'd be forced to leave their homes, officials said evacuations were never considered because the air quality was never bad enough to endanger anyone.
Hillsborough Mayor Frank DelCore said there were some initial environmental concerns because a property adjacent to the fire was once a federal stockade for mercury, a highly toxic element.
However, DelCore said the federal government had moved the mercury off the site several years ago. State and federal environmental officials tested the air quality, and "the air quality test has been positive, we see no public health threat," DelCore said.
The warehouse will likely smolder for days but the worst was over by Friday, authorities said.