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A second fire in two weeks at a sulfur storage mound at Port Manatee, Florida, Wednesday sent five people to the hospital and forced authorities to temporarily close U.S. Highway 41.

Two years ago, one of Port Manatee’s tenants leased property for a new two-acre sulfur storage mound on the east side of the port, about 1,000 feet west of the highway. That mound caught fire April 17, destroying a dump truck and forcing the evacuation of nearby buildings. It turned out, it ignited again Wednesday night, and five people ended up hospitalized due to smoke inhalation after they attempted to put out the fire, officials said.

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Sulfur fires can pose an additional hazard to first responders: The release of hydrogen sulfide gas, which may result from when sulfur heats up. The gas is toxic and highly flammable, and its presence can lower the flash point of sulfur dust.

Fire crews were actively engaged in combating the blaze shortly after it was reported, and it was extinguished by midnight. Michael Rampino, chief of the North River Fire District, said his crews used a drone with an infrared camera to identify hot spots and track the smoke plume from the fire.

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Wednesday’s blaze likely broke out when a sweeping machine made contact with a metal object, creating sparks and igniting flammable dust, said Frank Vanelli, a spokesman for the storage facility’s operator. The previous fire is believed to have been caused by a truck driving over dry sulfur; the truck driver took his vehicle outside of a marked area kept damp for safety, and the friction from the tires ignited loose material. 

“The public has nothing to be alarmed about, corrective actions are being taken and we will work closely with the local authorities, and we will not reopen until that has been handled,” Vanelli said.

The facility will remain closed until a new water irrigation system is installed, which will help reduce the risk of ignition. A spokeswoman for Port Manatee said the port authority is investigating additional safety measures.

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