Air quality concerns following old Kmart fire in NE Portland

Following a 4-alarm fire at a former Kmart building in NE Portland, nearby residents reported fallout from the flames and shared concerns
Published: Jul. 19, 2023 at 10:10 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Following a four-alarm fire at a former Kmart building in NE Portland, nearby residents reported fallout from the flames and shared concerns over the effects the fire and smoke could have.

“What are we breathing?” asked Sharon Chin, a nearby resident. “What burned? It could have been chemicals.”

SEE ALSO: 4-alarm fire tears through old Kmart building in NE Portland

Wednesday night, the Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalition released a statement calling on the Portland City Council to investigate the fire, it’s effects, and the future of the building.

“Embers from the fire later ignited mulch at the Hidden Oaks apartment complex, which shares a property line with the site, and fire personnel once again responded to put out the flames,” read the statement. “Residents are concerned about the carcinogens in the smoke and lack of Oregon Health Authority guidance around the burning of a 1960s building with lead paint, asbestos, and other toxic components.”

The building and site have been controversial for some in the community. There are plans to make it a freight warehouse, which many residents oppose. Several community stakeholders brought in Argo Scientific, an environmental company based in Camas, to monitor the air quality before, during, an after construction.

“I actually grew up in that neighborhood,” said Don Gamiles, the president and founder of Argos Scientific. “I still own a house there, my father’s house is about a mile from the high school. I saw there was a lot of chatter last November about this company coming into the old Kmart. The issue at Parkrose has historically been anything north of Sandy Blvd is industrial. A lot of different pollution sources.”

They started putting up an air monitoring network for the community to monitor pollutants from several sources around the high, middle, and elementary schools.

“What happened this morning is when we got news that the Kmart was on fire, we had a bunch of equipment we were getting ready to deploy anyway and we said let’s just get it out there and go to where the actual emissions are going from itself,” said Gamiles.

Hailey Gebhart, a senior data analyst for the company, showed us where they set up, in the parking lot of the apartment complex behind the former Kmart, and their findings.

“The particulate matter readings were in the 80s,” said Gebhart. “The California regulation for 24 hour exposure to particulate matter is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.”

Argos Scientific is currently working on putting all the data they collected Wednesday on a website, where residents can see the changes in air quality. You can view the data here.

“The biggest concern that I see is where the apartments where we set up were,” said Gamiles. “They’re right behind that area. They are literally 20 feet from the fence line. What you saw was very graphic in the morning with the fire. From a community health standpoint that air pollution is actually transported away from the community. It actually rises way up in the air and then moves away. I’m much more concerned with what the air quality is now after the fire is out, or smoldering. Tonight when the wind calms down and the temperature drops a little bit, the pollution from that area is just going to stay stagnant in that area and expose that to even more harmful pollution. The bigger concern is this isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and anyone with information is asked to contact the Portland Fire & Rescue’s arson hotline at 503-823-FIRE.