COVINGTON - An early morning tractor-trailer fire forced Georgia Perimeter College officials to close the school Friday and required that exit 98 of Interstate 20 eastbound be shut down for several hours.
According to Newton County Fire Services Deputy Chief Tim Smith, at about 2:30 a.m. Friday, a smaller trailer attached to a tractor-trailer headed eastbound on I-20 caught fire when its contents spontaneously combusted.
"Talking to the driver, this happens a lot. ... He said this is his third fire in 12 years," Smith said.
The truck driver was transporting a plastic-lined container with old rags from a chemical plant that were covered in paint thinner to a facility in South Carolina for burning.
When the NCFS arrived at 2:39 a.m., the driver had pulled onto the eastbound off-ramp and unhooked the attached trailer before the fire became "fully involved," according to Smith.
Smith said NCFS personnel arrived to shut down the ramp and determine how to handle the incident. They looked at their hazardous material sheets and environmental safety precautions and decided it was better to let the fire burn itself out, rather than add water to it, because of the potentially hazardous runoff, he said
Smith said protocol called for evacuation of anyone within 1/2 mile downwind from the fire, but no homes or businesses were in that area.
Georgia Perimeter College Police Chief Christopher Albers said school officials received a call about 7 a.m. from the Newton County Emergency Management Agency to evacuate and close the school.
"Some of our personnel on campus had begun to complain of eye irritation," Albers said, adding that none needed medical attention. "Because of the concerns about fumes from the fire, emergency responders asked us to close the campus."
He said students were turned away from the campus and only public safety personnel and other essential staff were allowed to remain in the building.
Even though the fire burned out by 10:30 a.m. Friday, Albers said the school remained closed to students for the day.
"Once we put the notice out that the school is closed, it's difficult to make another notice that the school will reopen, so it remained closed," he said.
The off-ramp later reopened, and school faculty and staff were allowed to re-enter the GPC campus. The school campus will reopen to students today.
Smith said once the fire burned out, crews took the remnants to the Newton County landfill and covered them with dirt.
He said no other vehicles were involved and no one was injured during the blaze.
Michelle Floyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.