By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Becker city leaders say major progress has been made as they try to put out a fire at the Northern Metal Recycling plant.

The fire began Tuesday morning in a pile of junked cars but it’s still unclear how it started. Since then, people have reported smelling burned metal and plastic up to 40 miles away, and Becker Public Schools was closed Thursday due to air quality concerns.

A fire break was put in last night, and that has helped a great deal. But fire crews continue to monitor the pile of scorched recycled cars. At least three different agencies have been on the scene doing air quality testing, and that’s a top concern for people living nearby.

City leaders say most of what people can see now in the air is actually steam coming off debris piles, but that doesn’t make people living in the area feel any better.

“Just black over the snow on the driveway and in the ditch right there,” resident Jada Rositas said. “The smell is bad and I don’t care to breathe that in.”

The wind has shifted at times, but at one point it blew directly into homes and farms on Highway 11, a couple miles from the recycling plant.

“It was really coming straight over us,” Malcolm Olson said. “You got a right in your voice box and you could smell it and it was bad.”

Olson is one of the owners of Olson Farms. Since Tuesday they’ve watched charred debris and soot blow onto the farm. He’s still not sure what kind of impact that will have when they get ready to plant this spring.

“We will have to have some soil test in the spring and see what’s in the soil,” Olson said. “When you seeing that you knew exactly where it was coming from. And it was black and it was just a regular plum coming right straight over.”

That is on everyone’s minds more than 50 hours after the fire began. Nearly two dozen fire departments have been involved, putting out hot spots at different times and essentially protecting nearby businesses.

“Our number 1 concern: get the fire out. Our number 2 concern, and as important, is public health and air quality and they kind of go together. And number 3 is identify the source and (find out if) we need to take corrective action,” Becker city administrator Greg Pruszinske said.

You may be able to smell or see smoke from that fire in the Twin Cities. WCCO’s Mike Augustyniak posted this video of the radar. You can see smoke and pollution showing up well into the metro.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the air quality near St. Cloud is good but the Twin Cities just got downgraded to moderate air quality.

John Lauritsen