Officials say it could take days to fully extinguish Northern Metals fire in Becker, Minnesota

Firefighters work to control the fire at the Northern Metals recycling plant in Becker, Minnesota. ( Bill Keller / FOX 9 )

Officials are investigating a fire that started overnight at the Northern Metal Recycling facility in Becker, Minnesota. As officials warn residents of poor air quality, the police chief said it could take days to fully extinguish the fire.

A passerby reported the fire at 2:25 a.m., according to the Becker Police Department. The fire appears to have started inside a massive pile of crushed automobiles at the facility. Police said damage appears confined to the pile of crushed cars. No one was injured and no building structures were involved.

 The Becker Police Department has received questions about air quality from the large amount of smoke. The department is working with Northern Metals and other agencies to identify the air quality and “anything that that would be problematic with the smoke.” As precaution, people with respiratory issues are being advised to stay indoors or in a well-ventilated area.

The smoke is so heavy, it can be seen on the FOX 9 radar.

Smoke from the fire in Becker, Minnesota is visible on the FOX 9 radar.

"It was billowing black smoke," a local mother said. "It just smelled of plastic. We knew it was toxic fire immediately. We saw the heaping piles of cars..who knows what's in that pile."

Becker Public Schools superintendent told FOX 9 the school district kept students inside for recess as a safety precaution. Schools also shut of their outside air intakes.

As of 3:10 p.m. Tuesday, crews were still putting out hot spots in the area. Members of the St. Cloud Hazardous Materials Team and Sherburne County Emergency Management were also asked to assist in taking air samples around the surrounding areas due to the considerable amount of smoke present at the scene.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is monitoring the situation but has not intervened.

“MPCA received a report from the Minnesota Duty Officer at 7:58 a.m. today of a fire at the Northern Metals facility in Becker,” spokesperson Ralph Pribble  said in a statement to FOX 9. “Local fire responded.  MPCA Emergency Response staff are monitoring the situation but their assistance has not been requested by local authorities. Around noon ER staff learned that the local fire department requested a Chemical Assessment Team to do air monitoring in the area. CAT is an interfire service that provides special equipment and training but does not operate under MPCA oversight.”

Northern Metals has been at this new location south of Highway 10 off Energy Drive since last year, when the company permanently shut down its metal shredding operations in north Minneapolis. The company reached a settlement with the MPCA, agreeing to move its facility and change its practices over concerns about air quality. 

The MPCA said it recorded unhealthy levels of lead and heavy metals in the air near the Northern Metals facility. A FOX 9 investigation showed the pollution was the second-highest elevated lead concentrations ever recorded in Minnesota, with Minneapolis’ Hawthorne neighborhood one of the hardest hit. 

Firefighters used aerial ladders to pour water on the fire from overhead while the crews on the ground used cranes to try to move the heaps of metal around to get to where the fire was burning.