A tire fire at a scrapyard in Southwest Philadelphia in November 2021 sent up plumes of smoke visible for miles. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Even for jaded Philly residents familiar with the billowing black plumes and smoky odor of junkyard fires, this past week was a bit much.

Not one, but two scrapyards burned within the span of a few days, one in Wissinoming on Wednesday and the other in Southwest Philly last Friday. They were preceded by another blaze in Hunting Park in April.

“We made it a whole 4 days!” quipped a recently created Twitter account, Days Since Last Philly Junkyard Fire.

The string of blazes occurred despite a recent inspection blitz by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. 

Sixteen code enforcement inspectors have visited more than 140 scrapyards since mid-March, The Inquirer reported. They make sure tires and other combustibles aren’t stacked too high or too close to property lines, there’s enough space between scrap piles for fire truck access, and other rules are being met. 

Businesses that are out of compliance receive notices of violations, which if not corrected can lead to fines and other sanctions.

While improperly stored materials can contribute to unsafe conditions, scrapyard operators say fires can also be sparked by flammable materials hidden inside junk dropped off by a customer. One unconfirmed report on Reddit described a vape pen, jammed into the crack of a back seat, that burst into flame when the vehicle was being crushed.

Billy Penn found at least six examples over the past 12 months. Here are some of the most recent of the city’s many junkyard fires.

Wissinoming — May 31, 2023

Wednesday’s three-alarm fire in Wissinoming, in the Northeast, scorched a building at Martin’s Recycling Company at Torresdale Avenue and Fraley Street. The company provides scrap metal removal services for auto repair shops and metal fabrication companies, per its website. 

About 120 members of the Fire Department battled the blaze, which caused no injuries but produced long, dark streams of smoke. The Department of Public Health reported it released “significant amounts of fine particulate matter,” making air at the site temporarily hazardous to breathe. Air quality was exacerbated by smoke from Canadian wildfires that has drifted into the region.

Southwest Philly — May 26, 2023

A two-alarm fire at an auto salvage yard at 61st and Passyunk drew more than more than 75 firefighters and 50 Fire Department vehicles, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. One firefighter was taken to the hospital for evaluation but was reportedly in stable condition after the blaze. 

The Department of Public Health urged people with breathing issues to stay indoors, while Councilmember Jamie Gauthier asked residents to “keep your windows closed and avoid the area.”

L&I had found three violations at the business during a previous inspection and was slated to reinspect it on June 2, per the Inquirer. There was a fire in the area last July (see below) — but apparently at a different junkyard.

Hunting Park — April 12, 2023

A junkyard on West Annsbury Street that residents describe as a notorious nuisance burned for about two hours. A neighbor was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. The smoke affected three schools but thanks to windy conditions it dissipated relatively quickly. About 120 fire personnel responded to the scene.

The site, a former railroad right of way owned by Railroad Recovery Inc., has racked up numerous L&I violations over the years, including a citation for two zoning and 12 fire code violations the day before the fire. Neighbors say the junkyard is too close to residences and violates the site’s zoning, and in 2015 the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted against a zoning appeal by Railroad Recovery, per Al Dia. 

But the company appealed the decision, and the junkyard remains in business.

Hunting Park — September 27, 2022

The fire destroyed cars and tires at a Sedgley Avenue auto yard, sending up huge plumes of smoke that disrupted SEPTA Regional Rail and Amtrak train schedules. The three-alarm fire also caused a spike in fine particulate matter, a major air pollutant that can aggravate asthma and other conditions.

Thiel said there had been fires at the scrap yard before. About 100 fire personnel worked to put it out.

A junkyard fire in September 2022. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Southwest Philly — July 18, 2022

A junkyard in the area of 61st and Passyunk burned for about half an hour, temporarily shutting down the Passyunk Avenue Bridge. No toxic substances were immediately identified in the air, but the Public Health Department sent inspectors to investigate possible hazards. 

Port Richmond — June 2, 2022

S.D. Richman Sons, a scrap metal facility at Aramingo Avenue and Wheatsheaf Lane, burned for about an hour before firefighters extinguished the flames. The neighborhood experienced an “air quality emergency” due to elevated levels of airborne fine particulates, the city said. There were also concerning levels of cancer-causing benzene, Drexel University chemistry professor Ezra Wood told WHYY.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...