Earlier this spring, a massive fire under Atlanta’s Interstate 85 weakened the structure enough to cause an elevated section to come crashing down, causing a transportation crisis for one of the country’s most congested cities. It took six weeks to rebuild the destroyed part of the road, which reopened on May 13, more than a month ahead of schedule. Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire or the collapse.
The investigation into the cause of the fire is not yet complete, but officials say that someone started a fire beneath the highway, using construction materials such as plastic and fiberglass tubes as fuel. Those materials had been sitting on a lot under the overpass for over six years.
This begs the question – what else is the state storing under these overpasses? And how do we prevent something like this from happening again?
Why Was This Flammable Material Being Stored Under I-85?
The fire shot a 40-foot wall of flame and smoke up from under the part of the highway that eventually collapsed. It began in a state-owned lot under the highway. Witnesses reported that a man intentionally lit a plastic chair on fire under a shopping cart, which eventually spread to spools of high-density polyethelene (HDPE).
The tubes were meant to be used in a camera and messaging board project 10 years ago, but the company that was supposed to build the project defaulted in 2008. A different contractor eventually completed the project using different materials. Because the Georgia Department of Transportation had already purchased the HDPE spools, they moved them to the lot under I-85, where the fire began.
The National Transportation Safety Board will be reviewing whether it is safe for HDPE to be stored under highways. The plastic is not normally very flammable, requiring a high-temperature flame for a long duration to ignite – evidence that the fire was arson. After examining the rest of the lots underneath city highways, it was determined that no other highways were in danger of burning down due to HDPE.