Fertilizer fire forces evacuation in Iowa, 4 seek treatment in hospital

Authorities tell residents to go ‘anywhere out of Northwood,’ warn that blaze could be harmful to human health

A fire burns at a chemical storage shed at a small airport used by crop-dusting planes in Northwood, Iowa, on Thursday.
Robert Bailey/Reuters

Authorities are evacuating a small northern Iowa city after a chemical fire broke out at a fertilizer storage facility, and have warned that the fire contains chemicals that could be harmful to human health.

A Worth County sheriff’s deputy told local media that residents are being asked to go “anywhere out of Northwood” and that a full evacuation is in effect.

Four Northwood residents went to a hospital with symptoms related to the fire. The hospital was put on alert in case more people need treatment, a spokesperson for Mercy Medical Center North Iowa told Al Jazeera.

Dennis Lau of Northwood, who lives in the south end of the city, said, "The cops came to my house at 9:30 and told me I had to leave. We didn't know what was going on. They just told us to get out of town as fast as we could. I got my dogs and left."

Some residents reported hearing explosions when the fire started at the facility, located on the grounds of Northwood Municipal Airport, the Globe Gazette reported. The fire started Thursday morning; no injuries have been reported.

Northwood has about 2,000 residents and is located north of Mason City near the Minnesota border.

According to local media, school buses are being used to evacuate residents to emergency centers elsewhere in the county.

The National Weather Service issued a civil emergency message calling the fire “a dangerous situation” and said that it contains sulfuric acid.

When heated, sulfuric acid releases toxic fumes that can cause health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

However, Kevin Baskins, communications bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told Al Jazeera that reports in the media that sulfuric acid was present in the fire are false.

"We have environmental specialists on the scene, and we have the list of all the chemicals that were stored in that facility – sulfuric acid was not present," Baskins said.

He said the facility held herbicides and pesticides, and that those can still be harmful to people who already have difficulty breathing. But overall, he called the evacuation "precautionary" and said he expects Northwood residents to get the "all clear" by Thursday evening.

"There's obviously some people that needed to be out of that situation," Baskins said. "But the EPA just confirmed to us that they don't believe any of the chemicals are going to be a human health hazard."

The Red Cross, which local media reported was on the scene in Northwood, mobilized disaster workers across Iowa to support the evacuation.

The Red Cross recommended that evacuated residents should bring extra clothing, blankets, prescriptions and other essential items, the Globe Gazette said.

The Iowa State Patrol, Northwood police and the sheriff's department are assisting at the scene. Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokeswoman Lucinda Robertson says residents are being sent to nearby Kensett.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Renee Lewis contributed to this report.

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