KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Arson investigators say a forklift backfired and shot a flame into a pile of compressed paper at a North Knoxville recycling plant last Wednesday, sending the business into flames. From there, the flames spread quickly and grew to more than two acres.
"Our arson investigators have determined that the cause of the fire was a forklift backfiring," said Captain DJ Corcoran with the Knoxville Fire Department. "You had a tremendous fuel load over there with all the plastics, papers, and chipped wood, cardboard. You had a lot of fire load potential."
On Monday evening, fire crews were dispatched to check on the site after a report of smoke. Dispatch said the scene was reported to be 'okay,' and no smoke could be seen rising from an aerial view an hour after the call came in Monday evening.
A wasteland of charred remains sits just feet away from homes. The intensity of the flames and the power of their heat on display as new details emerge about what started this massive blaze.
"The forklift shot out about a three-foot flame into a pile of shredded paper. Once that fire started, they did try to extinguish it," said Corcoran. "When they turned the extinguisher on it just sort of blew the flames and embers."
Behind a padlock, a fence and signs warning onlookers to stay outside the machinery responsible for the inferno. Charred and hardly recognizable, a forklift like this one set the Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling plant ablaze.
The Knoxville Fire Department says the first call came in around 1:10 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. Surveillance video from the WBIR transmitter building on Sharps Ride shows smoke billowing from the plant at around 1:05 pm. Just minutes later flames and smoke engulf the rest of the business. Firefighters say the delay in calling 911 may have contributed to how fast the flames spread.
"The fire spread really quick and I’m sure that they had their hands full, but by the time we received a 911 call, the air was full of black smoke," said Corcoran. "You had papers, you had cardboard, compressed wood, chipped wood, and plastic. The black smoke was coming from the plastic."
Arson investigators conducted interviews with the owners and others who were there when the fire started. The Knoxville Fire Department says the arson investigation is ongoing, but they feel like they are confident the fire started from the forklift.