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Intense chemical blaze 'very difficult fire to fight'


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Chlorine-tinged smoke streams from a warehouse fire in Conyers, Georgia, east of Atlanta.
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A fire at a chemical warehouse forces the evacuation of nearby residents in Conyers, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb.
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CONYERS, Georgia (CNN) -- Chlorine-laced clouds of smoke billowed over Interstate 20 in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, as a warehouse storing pool chemicals burned into Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

"Nobody was hurt that we know of," said Monty Eckles, vice president for manufacturing at BioLab, the owner of the Conyers warehouse, which employs 450 workers.

BioLab is a subsidiary of Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, considered the world's largest maker of pool and spa chemicals.

Twenty-eight people were admitted to two hospitals, but none was injured seriously, officials said.

One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, said Capt. Eric Jackson of the DeKalb County Fire Department. DeKalb was among five departments from neighboring counties called in to fight the fire, Jackson said.

One hundred firefighters battled the fire, which began about 4 a.m. with an explosion. The cause was not known, officials said.

A firefighter on the scene said he expected the fire to burn until at least noon Wednesday with the same intensity.

The smoke from the fire forced officials to close Interstate 20, a major east-west artery for Atlanta, Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karlene Barron said. The interstate was closed for nearly 30 miles until almost 3 p.m. because of concerns about visibility and air quality.

I-20 could be closed again if the winds shift, she said.

Jodi Shupe, an official of the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, predicted "a nightmare on I-20" for rush hour traffic, and asked that motorists stay out of the area.

Early in the morning, Rockdale County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door in a one-mile radius of the warehouse, urging people to evacuate.

Shupe said evacuation was only voluntary, not mandatory.

"If you have burning in your eyes, if you're having breathing problems, if you feel you are being affected in any way, you need to get out of the area," she said.

According to Red Cross representative Tiffany Fell, who was on the scene, there were approximately 150 people in each of two shelters, at the J.H. House Elementary School and Heritage High School, which were preparing to stay open all night.

A third shelter was briefly opened in nearby Eatonton, in Putnam County, for about 500 campers from the Camp Rock Eagle 4-H camp. The campers were then transported out of the area, according to the Red Cross.

Georgia State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said environmental safety was a concern, and Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency high altitude aircraft were testing air quality. Chemical contamination of the water runoff from fighting the fire also was being checked.

Oxendine said it is a "very difficult fire to fight" because it is not getting enough oxygen to burn itself out quickly.

"It's just sort of smoldering," he said, "and a smoldering fire will last days and days."

He added, "Obviously, we don't need that situation."

By early afternoon, three-quarters of the roof had collapsed, according to Rockdale Country Deputy Fire Chief Mike Lee.

Oxendine said firefighters had begun to knock down the walls of the plant with heavy equipment to make "the fire burn intensely and fast."

Eckles said the three main chemicals stored in the warehouse were trichloroisocyanuric acid, dichloroisocyanuric acid, and calcium hypochlorite. All are "swimming pool sanitizers" and are used for water treatment, he said.

Conyers is about 25 miles east of downtown Atlanta.

CNN's Marylynn Ryan, Mike Brooks and Peter Dykstra contributed to this report.


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