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'Shelter in place' alert issued in Cheboygan as paper mill burns

A massive plume of smoke billows over Cheboygan. Roads are closed in the area as crews respond. (Photo: Owen Goslin)
Owen Goslin
A massive plume of smoke billows over Cheboygan. Roads are closed in the area as crews respond. (Photo: Owen Goslin)

Update (11:36 p.m., Sept. 13):

Cheboygan Area Schools will be closed Thursday. District Superintendent Spencer Byrd told the Daily Tribune that the move comes at the recommendation of the county sheriff.

Original story:

Authorities issued a one-mile shelter in place advisory Wednesday afternoon around the Cheboygan Tissue Depot as fire crews respond to a massive inferno.

A statement from the Cheboygan County Sheriff Department said "fire crews were alerted that there was several tons of plastic stored in the building."

There were also worries about roofing materials that burned and could possibly contain asbestos, according to state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy spokesperson Jeff Johnston.

The fire was reported shortly after 11 a.m., and authorities closed roads and urged people to avoid the city's downtown area.

The Tissue Depot was known as the Great Lakes Tissue Co. before it changed hands earlier this year. The facility sits on either side of M-27, near several businesses and restaurants.

Owen Goslin, the executive director of the Cheboygan Opera House, could see the smoke from outside his office, about three-quarters of a mile away from the fire.

"As I look downtown, I can see a huge plume of gray smoke coming from the site," he said. "It's still billowing up."

Goslin grew up in Cheboygan, and he said he has "never seen a fire this big in town before."

"You can clearly see from the smoke that it's a huge fire," he said. "You don't want to go anywhere near it or inhale whatever is coming out with the smoke."

Residents posted videos and photos of the fire to social media on Sept. 13.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has closed the Cheboygan lock and dam due to the fire. EGLE spokesperson Johnston said the state and the Environmental Protection Agency are sending staff to the site to evaluate the short- and long-term impacts of the fire.

"We're concerned about anything that might be putting pollutants into the air," Johnston said. "Residents and businesses in the area are being evacuated or have been evacuated. We would, of course, advise people to stay away from the area and avoid exposure to the smoke."

City Clerk Alyssa Singles told IPR that the fire was at the manufacturing building across the street from the main plant.

“It really kind of has been going since 11 this morning," she said. "We know that the roof has collapsed and one of the walls parallel with Main Street of that building has collapsed onto Main Street.”

Ownership changes at the tissue facility came amid a slew of troubles. Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered the company to shut down its equipment as a legal battle plays out.

The collective that oversees the mill’s operation is facing a lawsuitfor allegedly neglecting payments on that leased equipment.

Ed Ronco is IPR's news director.
Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.