By Bill Hudson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Concerns over air quality have forced a Minnesota school district to cancel classes Thursday.

The fire is still roaring at Northern Metals Recycling in Becker. It started early Tuesday morning in a pile of junked cars.

More than 40-hours later, it’s still burning. Families miles away report smelling fumes from all that smoke.

Firefighters tried a new plan of attack Wednesday night. They pulled apart the stacks of cars in hopes they burn out. That will likely create even more smoke.

The view of the fire from Monticello, about five miles away from Northern Metals (credit: Dan Gleason

All Becker Public Schools will be closed Thursday as a precaution. Police say the air could cause breathing problems or irritate the lungs of children with asthma.

The fire is sending out a toxic plume of putrid-smelling smoke across the northwest metro.

“We can’t do our job in an emergency situation without all that mutual aid,” Becker City Administrator Greg Pruszinske said.

Fire apparatus from departments all across the state rolled non-stop through town. Like a modern day fire brigade, hauling water to help supplement city hydrants.

With a fire of this size, it’s critical to maintain steady volume of water.

(credit: CBS)

“It draws down out water tower system so we want to make sure we give those pumps a rest so we don’t burn our pumps out,” Pruszinske said.

It’s still unclear how the fire started early Tuesday morning. The new Northern Metals Recycling plant was not yet operational, but was stockpiling huge inventories of junked vehicles for future shredding.

The billowing smoke is impressive at ground level. But at 3500 feet, it’s visible on National Weather Service radar. Downwind, the smell can be overwhelming.

Stacie Heisen lives and works in Big Lake, down U.S. Highway 10 southeast of Becker. The town is situated in a direct path of the smoke plume.

“We can smell like plastic and it smells like burning tires,” Theisen said, “We’ve had a lot of customers smell it and a lot of people live down by the river on County 14 and they say it’s horrible over there.”

Concerns about air quality only add to the urgency to get it under control.

“Our number-one concern is to get the fire out,” Pruszinske said.

Meantime, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health are conducting air quality sampling. Experts continue to advise people with respiratory concerns to stay indoors and avoid the area.

Bill Hudson