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Firefighters battle stubborn Lockport tire blaze

As a pall of smoke and the acrid odor of burning rubber hung over parts of the City of Lockport late Friday night, officials said efforts to extinguish a gigantic tire fire at a tire-recycling plant will continue today.

"It's far from out," Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Costello said as he returned from the fire scene to take a break. "It's contained, it's down to one pile of tires, but we'll be here all [Friday] night and into [Saturday]."

The blaze at Liberty Tire Recycling, 490 Ohio St., started at about 2:15 p.m. and sent enormous billowing clouds of black smoke drifting east across the city.

After night fell, smoke could be seen in auto headlights on South Transit Street, Route 78, near the center of the city, and the smell was pervasive downwind from the fire in the city's west end.

There were no residential evacuations, but the word from police and firefighters was "shelter in place."

"Stay in and keep your windows closed," Costello advised.

During the late afternoon, observers close enough to the scene could see the glow of furious flames peeking through the dark gray and black smoke that climbed at least 220 feet into the sky and could be seen at least 10 miles away.

Mayor Michael W. Tucker, who made two visits to the scene, said the fire was the result of a broken electrical line that fell on the pile of tires.

Tucker said the original call was a report of an electrical fire in a transformer box inside a building. When police and firefighters arrived, they at first saw no fire.

Tucker said, "I think the fire or heat raced through that wire and overheated it. That caused the transmission line to break and fall on the tires. It was bad luck, but at the same time, those tires shouldn't have been there."

The mayor said he thinks the city may have a building code violation case to pursue against the company. "We're probably going to have issues with this fire," he said.

During the late afternoon, Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert estimated the size of the area burning at 75 square yards.

"It's not much smaller than that now," Costello said about 8:30 p.m.

Eggert said the fire was burning between two buildings, which were not on fire. He said firefighters worked hard to make sure the blaze did not spread to the structures.

"It's going to be a substantial monetary loss," Eggert said.

Costello said one fireman suffered a knee injury and was taken to Eastern Niagara Hospital for treatment. He did not know the man's name.

All 50 of the city's firefighters were called in through a general alarm, and the South Lockport Fire Company also was on the scene, while Terry's Corners Fire Company was placed on standby duty.

A truck from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station's firefighting unit was called in to spray foam on the tires.

"That was a lost cause," Costello said. "There wasn't enough water pressure."

He said the privately maintained hydrants on Liberty's property didn't produce strong enough water flow to make the foam stream strongly.

Fire crews ran hoses from as many city hydrants as they could reach on Ohio, Stevens and other streets.

Workers from the plant at first used heavy equipment to try to move tires and create a firebreak, Eggert said, although it appeared those efforts had been given up after a time.

Eggert said a bulldozer and other pieces of machinery had been caught in the fire, but he was unsure if they were the same ones used in the effort to move tires.

Many residential streets were blocked off in the west end of the city.

Costello said he saw an official of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, while Eggert said the Niagara County hazmat unit and officials of the county Health Department were at the scene because of the environmental danger from runoff.

Liberty Tire is a Pittsburgh company that acquired the former High Tread International in September 2010.

A fire gutted one of the plant's buildings along Ohio Street on Sept. 7, doing millions of dollars in damage, according to reports at the time.

Liberty grinds tires into chips used to manufacture other products.

"It's a tough operation out there. It's dirty," Tucker said. He said the city has flagged the company for occasional violations and whenever it does, "They become compliant."

The plant is in an industrial zone, but backs up to a residential neighborhood.