Gusty afternoon winds fueled an inferno that began as a small brush fire but resulted in damage to five nearby buildings -- including a wing of a Catholic school and a century-old convent -- in Alden on Monday.
The initial 911 call was received just before 1:45 p.m., when a garage at 12414 Westwood Road near Sandridge Road was reported to be on fire, Erie County sheriff's officials said.
Witnesses told authorities that the fire started after high winds blew flames from a brush pile being burned near the garage.
Alden firefighters arrived to find the garage engulfed. Heat from the garage resulted in damage to the outside of a home there.
A short time later, the brisk winds fanned the flames and sent glowing embers flying in the direction of Sandridge Road, causing damage to a wing of St. John the Baptist Catholic School that housed the school gymnasium, said the Rev. James D. Ciupek, pastor at St. John's.
"When the first fire initially broke out, the children were evacuated right away," said Ciupek.
Pupils were dismissed to their buses and sent home, Ciupek said. Coincidentally, pupils participated in a fire drill earlier in the day.
Next ignited was the nearby St. John's Convent House.
"The wind was blowing very strongly eastward, and it caught the roof of the convent on fire," Ciupek said.
Soon, it was engulfed in flames.
"We have every reason to believe it was a total loss," the pastor said.
The upper attic and roof of the convent were destroyed, and there was heavy water and smoke damage throughout the building.
Ciupek said no one lived in the convent but the building often was used by the parish as a meeting place. It contained a youth room for the parish, as well as a place for religious retreats. It had a large meeting area, a full-service kitchen and dining room and the original convent chapel on the bottom floor, he said.
"We don't have anything like it to replace it," Ciupek said.
From the church property, winds swept the flames across the street, igniting a barn on Westwood Road. The barn was destroyed, sheriff's officials said.
More than 20 fire companies -- including 75 or more firefighters -- battled the blazes, which were handled under the direction of Alden Fire Chief Richard Greis.
St. John's School, which enrolls 112 prekindergarten to grade eight pupils, will remain closed today while areas are professionally cleaned and repairs are made, Ciupek said. A few windows in the gymnasium were broken out and there was some smoke and water damage there.
Sheriff's officials said no injuries were reported. Damage estimates were still being tabulated and fire investigators were continuing to probe the blaze.