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FIRE FEEDING ON CONSTRUCTION DEBRIS RAVAGES FORMER GYPSUM PLANT WAREHOUSE IN CLARENCE

A three-alarm fire fueled by discarded construction material tore through a warehouse at an abandoned gypsum plant in Clarence Thursday afternoon, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Investigators, who discovered five points of origin for the fire, returned to the scene today to continue searching for a cause and to prepare a damage estimate. The fire was reported at 2:09 p.m. at the old National Gypsum plant, 8600 Roll Road, and declared under control at 6:10 p.m. after 13 fire companies were called to the scene.

Firefighters and workers at nearby businesses described the abandoned plant -- particularly the construction debris stored on its grounds -- as a "fire waiting to happen."

"This has always been a problem," said Shelagh Thomas, general manager of Clarence Builders Supply. "Thefts, small fires, vandalisms. It's a mess over there. The sheriffs are here a lot."

Ms. Thomas reported the fire after she noticed flames shooting from the structure, set back some 500 yards from Roll Road.

"First, it looked like a furnace type of situation -- just smoke," Ms. Thomas explained.

"I looked again, and there were flames."

No injuries were reported among the estimated 100 firefighters who battled the blaze. Volunteers used almost 20 pieces of equipment to fight the fire.

The fire was contained within one building on the plant grounds -- in a 100-by-100-foot room that reportedly contained wooden crates, drywall and other construction debris.

"This was a fire waiting to happen," said one firefighter, who did not want to be identified. "This is the remains of what is making this town grow as big as Amherst."

Firefighters, shooting water from aerial hoses, at times disappeared behind the tar-blackened plumes of smoke that clouded the air.

The plant property, most recently occupied by a construction company, had been vacant for about three years, according to firefighters.

Clarence Center Fire Company was the first on the scene.

"We entered the building and witnessed a large amount of fire in the center," said Assistant Chief Timothy Norris. "We removed all the (fire) equipment and fought the fire from the outside."

The metal structure -- topped by a steel-deck roof -- collapsed almost immediately afterward, according to Norris.

Smoke continued to pour from the structure almost three hours into the blaze, as some firefighters voiced concern over decreasing water pressure.

Nicholas Cutaia, 13, of Roll Road skated past the scene, pulled by his dog, Bear.

"I saw the black smoke from my house," Nicholas said. "I never expected anything like this would happen, but my dad knew right away."

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