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A fire at the Port Vancouver in downtown Vancouver March 4, 2015.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Update: The fire burned at about a third of its original size the morning after it broke out. Latest developments here.

The bustling streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside were eerily vacant Wednesday afternoon after clouds of smoke poured into the area from a nearby chemical fire that shut down Vancouver's port area and led to the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services responded at 1:38 p.m. to a hazmat situation at the terminal on the 700 block of Centennial Road and soon found a four-alarm blaze engulfing three shipping containers.

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Acrid smoke that could sting the eyes, nose and lungs soon spread south and east into the Downtown Eastside, prompting authorities to shut down and evacuate the port as well as take to social media to advise people to avoid the area. City staff on the DTES helped get people with nowhere to go off the streets and into shelters and public buildings, such as libraries.

Residents east of Main Street and north of East First Avenue and as far east as Burnaby were advised by Vancouver Coastal Health to stay indoors and breathe through a wet towel if they needed to go outside. Vancouver police cruisers were reported evacuating businesses in Railtown and roaming the streets of Strathcona – another one of the neighbourhoods closest to the fire – using loudspeakers to tell residents to get inside.

Coastal Health spokesman Gavin Wilson confirmed that the chemical involved in the fire is trichloroisocyanuric acid, which is an industrial disinfectant that can be used as a bleach and sometimes in place of chlorine in pools.

Respiratory expert Dr. Chris Carlsten said trichloroisocyanuric acid is highly combustible and "could cause significant airway damage even on a single relatively short-term exposure."

"My concern as a lung doctor is if it's inhaled it can do significant damage to the airways," said Dr. Carlsten, who regularly treats people at Vancouver General Hospital that are sickened by inhalants.

By early evening, the fire department had the blaze under control and had advised residents in large parts of northeast Vancouver that they could go back outside. Coastal Health didn't immediately report any injuries in the fire, but cautioned those wheezing or coughing over the next 24 hours to get to a hospital immediately.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's rush hour was snarled for those commuting east on transit and in vehicles.

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The cause of the blaze is unknown.

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