The cause of a three-alarm fire that took five hours to get under control Aug. 6 at an Atkore Inc. facility in New Mexico has been classified as "undetermined."
The fire, which started in an area where employees take smoke breaks, burned a vehicle, untold amounts of high density polyethylene, multiple forklifts and other heavy equipment.
The blaze also sent black plumes and plastic fumes into the air.
A month later, investigators said they still haven't uncovered any criminal findings or evidence that the fire was intentionally started, but they can't classify it as accidental either.
The fire was contained to the outside storage yard adjacent to the building, according to Lisa Winter, Atkore vice president of communications. "The fire did not enter the facility and did not impact our machinery," Winter said in an email. "However, production was halted for less than 72 hours while we cleaned the facility floors from water that entered the building from nearby fire hoses and from some in-plant fire sprinklers that kicked on due to the fire's heat."
Company officials continue to work with insurance firms to determine damage estimates, Winter added.
Albuquerque Fire Rescue conducted a "thorough and lengthy" investigation but hasn't pinpointed any cause of the blaze, according to a Sept. 6 news release issued by the city of Albuquerque.
"Investigators confirmed that the fire started at the southwest corner of the facility near a vehicle in an unauthorized area and large inventory of plastic products," the city release says, describing the vehicle as a car.
The facility had been operated by United Poly Systems LLC until June 2022, when the company and its two facilities in Missouri and New Mexico were acquired by Atkore.
The employees were interviewed by authorities, but their accounts didn't aid investigators.
"There was no admission from staff or evidence that a cigarette was thrown and started the fire. Although this is one of the hypotheses developed by fire investigators, it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt," the release says.
Investigators lack physical evidence, video footage and interview statements.
"Therefore, fire investigators have officially classified the cause of the fire as undetermined, pending further workable information," the release says.
Atkore officials lauded first responders for how they handled the emergency.
"Firefighters are to be commended for their quick response and diligence in containing the fire to the storage yard and preventing it from entering the building," Winter said.
Still, Atkore was prepared to continue servicing customer orders by leveraging its nationwide network of plants, Winter added.
Atkore produces electrical conduit and fittings, cable and cable management systems, infrastructure products, and safety and security products for data centers and other non-residential markets for electrical, telecom, water, transportation and solar applications.
In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2022, Atkore generated sales of $3.9 billion, which was an increase of 33.7 percent compared to fiscal 2021. The increase was primarily attributed to increased average selling prices driven by the plastic pipe and conduit category within the electrical segment.
With an estimated $1.15 billion in annual pipe sales, Harvey, Ill.-based Atkore is the No. 6 ranked pipe, profile and tubing producer in North America, according to Plastics News data.
Atkore extrudes pipe and conduit for the electrical, fiber optics, gas and oil gathering and telecommunications markets at 13 facilities.
The Albuquerque fire broke out about 2:35 p.m. Aug. 6. The dispatch went out as a "vehicle fire near a commercial business with on-site materials involved." The materials were later identified as high density polyethylene pipes, conduit and recycling materials.
"Upon arrival to the Atkore facility, units quickly determined that the fire was spreading aggressively and being wind-driven toward additional fuels in the area," an Aug. 6 city news release says.
The flames also spread to a vegetative area east of the building, resulting in "a simultaneous wildland firefighting operation."
The fire took about five hours to get under control and into the next day to fully extinguish with help from 90 area first responders in all.
No injuries were reported by emergency workers or Atkore staff, which had evacuated prior to their arrival.
The winds reportedly sent a coal-black plume of smoke on a northwest drift, which was away from populated areas – and monitoring stations. As a result, Albuquerque officials couldn't "capture the true characteristics" of the initial plume, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
The pollutant concentrations that were measured were never high enough to warrant any public health alert and had returned to pre-fire levels by 7 p.m. Aug. 7, the Journal also reported, citing an Albuquerque Environmental Health Department report.