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Firefighters struggled into the late evening hours last night to contain a blaze that had erupted earlier in the day at a metal-recycling facility in the Acre area. The thick smoke from the fire at the Hod Assaf facility blanketed communities as far away as Shfaram, Nahariya and the Haifa suburbs.

Amir Levy, commander of the Western Galilee Fire Department, told Haaretz that 25 crews had been battling the blaze to prevent it from spreading to other factories nearby.

After spotting fire emanating from the site around 12 P.M., crews from Acre and other area stations raced to the scene along with officials from the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Residents of the area kibbutzim Kfar Masaryk and Ein Hamifratz were instructed to stay inside their homes for several hours, and only at 5:00 P.M. were informed that the air was safe enough for them to step outdoors.

Police also closed several major roads in the area, leading to heavy traffic jams around Haifa and Acre.

Authorities said the circumstances of the incident were being investigated and no option - including arson - was being ruled out.

"I was in the chicken coop when I heard the announcement on the loudspeakers to get indoors," Dudu Ganot of Kfar Masaryk told Haaretz. "It's not very pleasant staying home for hours while the whole area is covered in black smoke."

For years Ganot's fellow kibbutz members have been waging a battle against the factory's operation, pointing to higher-than-average cancer rates - particularly lung cancer - as proof of its deadly effects.

Kibbutz secretary Niron Shefer said, "We've been working for years by legal means, and occasionally in dialogue with the factories and the Environmental Protection Ministry, to monitor the pollution. We live in constant fear over what we and our children are breathing and the water we're drinking.

"We are aware of the necessity of industry," he continued, "but we also have to think of residents' health. I hope the environmental protection minister looks deeply into the problem and does something about it."

The Acre-area Hod Assaf factory functions as a facility for recycling various types of scrap metal (from vehicles to electrical appliances ) and melts them into liquid steel. The steel is then hardened and used for a variety of applications, notably construction.

Various forms of plastic, rubber and other refuse are also collected at the facility, all of which can be dangerous to human health when burned. The plant was formerly called Kiryat Haplada ("Steel City" ), but was recently renamed by owner Rami Shani for his son Assaf, killed in a work-related accident there several years ago.

Shani said the blaze originated in a pile of vehicle frames for unknown reasons. "Fire crews struggled to get water to the bottom of the pile, and because there were tires there it created a lot of smoke," he said. "In my opinion, this poses no danger to either the environment or human health."