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Blaze at Lockport tire recycling site forces evacuation of nearby residents

LOCKPORT – Firefighters Wednesday night battled a four-alarm fire at an old paper mill and tire recycling business in the first block of Stevens Street.

Lockport Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady said there were at least four structures burning, all on property owned by High Tread International, including the Upson Co., which were used for storage of tires and rubber.

Billowing black smoke could be seen from miles away.

Niagara County Fire Coordinator Jonathan F. Schultz said as many as 14 fire companies were called to assist Lockport firefighters. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office said the initial alarm was sounded at 6:36 p.m.

There were no reports of injuries.

Cause of the fire was not immediately known. No houses caught fire. A dwelling on Stevens Street next to the warehouse was in danger, but firefighters quickly wetted it down.

Firefighters battled heat and fatigue throughout the evening.

The fire erupted in an industrial neighborhood in the west end of Lockport, on the west side of the Erie Canal, from which water was pumped to fight the fire. The old mill once housed the Upson Co., a wallboard manufacturer.

Bystanders were recruited to move fire hoses to better access the fire.

The wind blew the smoke – backlit by the crimson of the fire – to the northeast. Soot from the blaze rained on surrounding areas. The sound of a building collapsing could be heard by hundreds gathered nearby.

Police asked residents of the Stevens Street area north of the blaze to evacuate their homes. Affected were West Avenue and Stevens, Prospect, Ohio, South Bristol, Bacon, Webb and Windsor streets. Residents were instructed to go to the Salvation Army building at Cottage and Walnut streets Anna Merritt School and North Park Middle School. Lockport fire officials said early Thursday residents would likely not be allowed to return to their homes today.

Alysa Hillman of Prospect Street was packing her van with belongings “just in case,” she said. “No, I’m not going to leave unless they tell me to. I’m stressed – I’m at a loss for words.”

Katherine Martin, a member of the Rapids Fire Company, who was directing foot traffic, cautioned people to “stay back” from the fire hose running from the Erie Canal to the fire scene.

One woman who said she works at the Hillside Children’s Center near the fire scene said, “We have an investment in our building and take a lot of pride in it, so obviously I’m concerned. Fortunately there’s no staff in there.”

Lockport residents are only too familiar with tire fires at the site.

In May 2009, a fire in large debris pile containing tires quickly was brought under control.

On Sept. 7, 2011, fire gutted one of the buildings there, causing $1 million damage.

On Jan. 28, 2012, a sizable tire fire between two buildings spread thick smoke through parts of city.

Buildings on the site date back to the early 20th century, when Charles Upson established a factory in an old shed to produce a better variety of wallboard. By 1921, Upson Board was so successful that the Upson Co. was the world’s largest wallboard factory under one roof.

The company survived the Depression by producing TUCO (The Upson Co.) jigsaw puzzles. Upson faltered financially in the 1970s and was sold to Domtar, a Canadian company, in 1984.

Domtar sold the operation to Caraustar in 1992. Later that year Buffalo Wallboard, a Caraustar subsidiary, began making paper liners for wallboard there. It shut down in 2003.

In 2004, the tire recycling business, High Tread International, bought the property. Acquired by Liberty Tire Recycling in 2010, it is now known as HTI Recycling.

News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson contributed to this report email: tprohaska@buffnews.com, jhowland@buffnews.com and mgryta@buffnews.com

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