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Four-alarm fire burns at business in west Houston

Chron logo Chron 5/6/2016 Dale Lezon, Craig Hlavaty, Matt Dempsey, and Mark Collette

Firefighters have gained the upper hand on a massive blaze at a business in west Houston that prompted the city to issue an alert over the release of hazardous material and led to the evacuation of an elementary school. 

After starting at a nearby house, the fire grew to four alarms at the Custom Packaging and Filling Company about 9:45 a.m. in the 1700 block of Laverne near Spring Branch Drive in Spring Branch, according to the Houston Fire Department.

"Haz Mat has not made contact with anyone who works or owns this company. All we have is the name of the place," said Jay Evans with the Houston Fire Department. "We have no idea what's in the building."

Evans said firefighters responded to the house fire but by the time they doused those flames, the fire had already raced through the nearby warehouse. By 2 p.m., firefighters deemed the warehouse incident under control.

The public is advised to avoid the areas near Spring Branch Creek along with ditches and culverts and stay out of the water until authorities can complete testing on it and deem it safe. Red, foul-smelling water can be seen flowing in some of these water ways.

The fire department does not have explanatory documents, known as "material safety data sheets," from the company, which would allow authorities and the public to identify what chemicals are stored on site. Evans said no one associated with the business could be reached.

Custom Packaging and Filling serves industrial customers and handles a variety of hazardous substances, according to the company website and records of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It has no record of environmental violations with TCEQ or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and has not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the last five years.

All students at nearby Spring Branch Elementary School were evacuated on buses to Don Coleman Coliseum at 1050 North Dairy Ashford, said officials with the Spring Branch Independent School District.

A shelter in place order was issued for the area north of Westview, west of Bingle, south of Hammerly and east of Blalock. The order was lifted around 2 p.m., but officials still urge people to stay away from the area if possible.

An employee with COIT Carpet Cleaning's corporate office in Fort Lauderdale, which has a location across the street from the massive fire, says that street and surrounding businesses have been evacuated.

Police said traffic is being rerouted away from the fire. Motorists are urged to avoid the area.

Officials said no injuries have been reported.

Javier Chavez, 34, lives about three blocks from where the fire started. His 6-year-old son is a kindergartner at Spring Branch Elementary School.

"You can see the smoke and the black tar all over the cars," he said as the fire raged nearby. "It's a bit of a concern because we're not sure what the company is that's burning right now."

Firefighters pour water on a large blaze Thursday, May 5, 2016, in Houston. The four-alarm fire, which generated towering plumes of black smoke, began early Thursday morning at a custom packing and filling company in west Houston. The blaze caused various explosions that rattled the industrial area and surrounding neighborhoods. © Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP Firefighters pour water on a large blaze Thursday, May 5, 2016, in Houston. The four-alarm fire, which generated towering plumes of black smoke, began early Thursday morning at a custom packing and filling company in west Houston. The blaze caused various explosions that rattled the industrial area and surrounding neighborhoods. Chavez, who works for Rice University in the Department of Chemistry in shipping and receiving, said, "I work with hazardous chemicals constantly, so I completely know what the outcomes of some of these things can be."

Chavez got to the coliseum before noon, showed his ID and picked up his son.

"It was a really good experience, despite all the worries, to come in here and know he was safe," he said.

Lelina Cantero, a fifth-grader, said she was scared when the students were evacuated from school and loaded onto the buses.

"Some kids were crying because they were worried about their brothers and sisters," she said.

School officials said 650 children and 80 staffers were evacuated from Spring Branch.

Elizabeth Rendon said her mother-in-law told her the fire appeared to start in a building behind some homes, spread to a nearby house and then leaped to the roof of her family's home.

Rendon said she and her neighbors were evacuated.

Dark smoke could be seen billowing into the sky for miles. About 175 firefighter and 64 trucks battled the blaze.

More details will be reported as the story develops.

Chronicle reporter Susan Carroll contributed to this article


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