Chief: Highland Park fire may take week to extinguish

Candice Williams, James David Dickson, and Holly Fournier
The flames could take about a week to fight, according to Highland Park Fire Chief Kevin Coney. No injuries have been reported.

Highland Park — It was 4 a.m. Wednesday when Craig Varterian got a wake up call he never expected. The warehouse that houses the nonprofit he runs, Reclaim Detroit, was on fire. .

“I’m really shell-shocked,” Varterian said after flames were first reported around 2:30 a.m. in the 14300 block of Hamilton. Reclaim Detroit, which salvages material from abandoned homes and landfills, was one of five tenants in the building.

“It burned to the ground,” he said. “All of our equipment, all of our inventory, all those materials we’ve been collecting for so long.”

Other tenants affected by the fire that destroyed the 565,000-square-foot warehouse include a recycling company and Helm, a marketing materials business. No injuries were reported.

The fire continued into Wednesday night. It could be a week before it is extinguished, said Highland Park Fire Chief Kevin Coney. Meanwhile, Highland Park authorities issued a boil-water alert because of low-water pressure due to the firefighting.

By Wednesday afternoon, the fire still burned but was under control, said Fire Marshall Jerome Brown. The source of the fire remained unclear, he said.

Highland Park, Detroit and Hamtramck fire departments responded to the scene, Brown said. The sounds of explosions periodically could be heard Wednesday from inside the warehouse, which was 565,000 square feet.

Smoke from the fire led to the evacuation of nearby residents. It was unknown when they’d be allowed to return to their homes. Mayor Hubert Yopp said it was possible residents would remain at local churches overnight.

Evacuations in Highland Park included a high-rise building for senior citizens and Gabrielle Apartments and Townhomes near Second and Manchester Parkway. Residents were taken on Detroit Department of Transportation buses to Soul Harvest Ministry, officials on the scene said.

“Businesses on Woodward were given the option to remain open for the day or to close until the smoke cleared, Yopp said.

Bishop Lewis Evans, pastor of Soul Harvest Ministries, where evacuees were sent, says he got a call from fire chief Kevin Coney at about 6 a.m. asking him to open the doors of the church.

Evacuees were unsure what would happen if their displacement lasted days.

Tiffany Butler, 31, would be preparing for a job interview tomorrow if she weren’t forced to leave her home.

Butler, who lives in the Gabrielle Apartments, heard a boom from the factory across the street just after 3 a.m. She got a knock on her door about 7:30 a.m., and was told she would have to evacuate. She had been at Soul Harvest since 10:30 a.m. By 2 p.m., she had two concerns: her headache and a lack of clothes in the event the evacuation lasted several days.

Irene Robinson, 92, doesn’t have an easy Plan B if she can’t get back home. Robinson has had two heart attacks and a stroke, and a hospital stay earlier in the week.

“It’s hard to find somewhere to stay” while facing health issues, Robinson said. “I don’t have the money to stay in a hotel.”

The large plumes of smoke prompted the Oakland County Health Division to issue an air quality advisory.

Residents in Oakland County were advised to call their health care provider if they experience problems around smoke.

Highland Park residents are advised to boil their water until further notice, the Mayor’s Office said.

“The water pressure is so low because the fire is so massive,” said Ruth Harlin, executive assistant to Yopp.

This is the second large fire for the area in recent years. In July 2012, the former Sanders Confectionery headquarters burned down at 100 Oakman.

“I hate to see these once vibrant businesses going up in smoke,” said Nicholas Becharas, CEO of Becharas Brothers Coffee Co. His family’s 102-year-old business has been at its current site on Hamilton since 1961. It sits between the former Sanders site and the warehouse.

“With Sanders they haven’t done anything,” he said. “It’s a pile of rubble. When this fire is extinguished, it will be just the exterior shell of the building. I hope it doesn’t become years and years of an eyesore.”

Helm initially was reported by officials on the scene to be the owner of the building but a Helm representative has told The Detroit News that was incorrect.

“Obviously we are very saddened and we’re very thankful that none of our team members were in the building,” director of marketing Erica Kommer said. “But we do have another warehouse location so business is up and running.”

Longtime area resident Reggie Jones, 40, said he remembers when the building was a factory before it more recently housed a recycling/scrap center.

The fire will cause “another eyesore for the community. The scrappers are about to be all over that,” he said. “It’s a sad day in Highland Park history.”

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