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With the Cheboygan fire tamed, officials try to contain the water used to fight it

Firefighters respond to a fire at the Tissue Depot in Cheboygan on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of the City of Cheboygan)
Firefighters respond to a fire at the Tissue Depot in Cheboygan on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the City of Cheboygan)

Thousands of gallons of water now contain particulates and debris. Responders are trying to stop that from reaching the nearby Cheboygan River.

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with IPR and Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Firefighters were still putting out the last of the paper mill fire in Cheboygan on Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency and other responders are trying to stop pollution from reaching the nearby Cheboygan River.

When part of the Tissue Depot went up in flames on Wednesday, firefighters doused the blaze with thousands of gallons of water. That water is full of particulates and debris from the burned structure.

A structure fire like this can release particulates and debris into the air and the water.

“The firefighting water itself can be contaminated with materials from the site. We've been engaged in efforts to keep that water from entering the local waterways,” said Jeff Johnston, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Agencies are collecting water in a tank on site, and will decide what to do with it later. They have blocked off storm drains and placed barriers in the river to keep debris from drifting away.

Johnston said the U.S. Coast Guard is monitoring Lake Huron for any debris.

“[Responding agencies] have got vacuum trucks that will actually suck that up off the water and pooled water that's around the fire site," said Johnston. "At this point, there's about 20,000 gallons of firefighting water that's going to be collected.”

The clean-up and testing may take several weeks, County Sheriff Timothy Cook said in a news release.

"This will not be a quick process," he said.

Testing will include taking ground samples around the city, including near schools, the hospital and a senior living area.

County officials ask residents not to fish at the dam or downriver from it. People should not mow their lawns or do activities that raise up dust until test results are released, and officials also recommended that people wipe of their shoes and their pets' paws before entering their homes.

Investigators with the state police and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are trying to determine what caused the fire.

Cook said the building and business owners are cooperating with the investigation.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.