Fire crews battle 'toxic' blaze in Chatham, residents told to stay indoors

Residents in Chatham-Kent, Ont., are being asked to stay indoors and close their windows as firefighters battle a toxic blaze that is sending thick black smoke into the sky.

'All of the sudden it became engulfed in flames. There was an explosion and the ground shook a bit'

Fire crews battled a fire near Thames and Dover Streets in downtown Chatham, Ont., on Oct. 14. Residents were being asked to stay indoors and shut their windows because of thick smoke. (Twitter Photo/@chathamveranda)

Residents in Chatham-Kent, Ont., about 80 kilometres east of Windsor, were asked to stay indoors and close their windows as firefighters battled a toxic blaze that sent thick black smoke into the sky.

The fire broke out about 2 p.m. Saturday near Thames and Dover streets, engulfing an army surplus shop and a hot tub store.

Fire crews from several stations in Chatham, Ont. fought a massive blaze at an army surplus store near downtown Saturday afternoon. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Police described the smoke as "toxic" and asked residents to stay away. An officer on scene said two employees and three customers were inside the army surplus shop when the fire started, but they escaped uninjured.

Firefighters confirmed there were no injuries, but wouldn't comment further.

Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy lives near the downtown blaze and drove over when it was in its early stages. He said it looked like crews were getting everything under control, when the fire began to rage.

"All of the sudden it became engulfed in flames. There was an explosion and the ground shook a bit," said Bondy. "I don't know what was in that building but it was incredibly flammable and very, very toxic."

Bondy said he was amazed by the amount of flames and smoke, which he said smelled acidic. The two businesses were housed in a one-storey building, he said.

"You'd never expect that kind of a fire to come out of a place like that," he added. "It exploded into flames. I'm 48 years old and I've never seen anything like that."

Lonney Butler was outside building a deck when he saw smoke rising into the sky. He saw the building "ripple" and "buckle" as the roof blew and went indoors because the smoke was "sort of green."

Sam Butler owns a business a few metres away from the fire and described "flaming fireballs" shooting out through holes in the collapsing roof.

"You could feel it in your chest. You could feel the ground shake. It was quite an explosion," he said.

The fire tore through Church's Army and Outdoor and a hot tub shop nearby. Residents in the block surrounding the fire were evacuated, but no injuries were reported. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Even though emergency crews warned people to stay indoors and away from the fire, scores of Chatham residents were drawn by the thick cloud of black smoke, which was visible from several kilometres away.

"The entire city is paralyzed because everyone drove to the middle of Chatham to see what was burning," said Bondy. "The entire town came to see this thing. It's like the Santa Claus parade."