Shelter in place lifted after fire at Michigan paper mill produces plumes of heavy smoke

CHEBOYGAN, Mich. (AP) — People living near a northern Michigan paper mill that caught fire, filling the air with thick grey smoke, emerged from their homes Thursday after sheltering in place for more than a day, as environmental officials found the local air quality had improved to safe levels.

Plumes of smoke could be seen for miles around on Wednesday morning after the fire broke out at the Tissue Depot property in downtown Cheboygan, about 290 miles (466 kilometers) northwest of Detroit.

Fire crews contained the blaze to a storage building at the mill on Wednesday afternoon and they remained on the scene Thursday “putting out hot spots,” officials said.

Cheboygan residents living with a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius of the Tissue Depot were told to shelter in place until 1:30 p.m. Thursday, when officials lifted that order following air testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Cheboygan County Sheriff’s Department said in a Facebook post that the EPA found that level of particulates in the air had diminished overnight “to safe levels.” Roads around the fire scene remain closed around the fire scene and the public was advised to stay away from the area, the posting said.

No mill employees or firefighters were injured, Cheboygan Fire Chief Don Dailey said Wednesday.

The fire started in a part of the mill where no employees were working at the time, Dailey said, and crews were alerted that there were several tons of plastic stored in the building.

Officials said Thursday that the cause of the fire remains unknown, but fire investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Michigan’s fire marshal “are on scene to investigate the cause and origin of the fire.” The owner of the building and the business owner are cooperating, officials said.

The sheriff's update said that residents in areas downwind of the fire “may notice dust or other debris in their yard" and they were advised not to cut their lawns “or do any work that may raise dust back in the air” until the EPA receives final test results.

Residents were also advised to wipe their feet, and their pets' feet, if they reenter their homes after venturing outside.

EPA contractors were on the scene helping clean up ground and water contaminates — a process that may take several weeks, officials said. That effort includes booms that have been deployed along the Cheboygan River to collect contamination and debris downstream of the Cheboygan Lock and Dam.

That lock and dam, which allows boats to navigate the different levels of the Cheboygan River, remained closed Thursday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said.

Staff with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy were sent to Cheboygan on Wednesday afternoon “to help assess the situation,” said spokesperson Jeff Johnston.

Formerly known as Great Lakes Tissue Co., the mill once employed about 300 workers.