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Lackawanna fire still burning, but controlled

Thursday's update on the Bethlehem Steel fire: Lackawanna schools closed, Route 5 remains closed

The massive blaze that started early Wednesday at the former Bethlehem Steel plant off Route 5 is under control, but still burning.

Route 5 will remain closed until Thursday afternoon between Lake Avenue and Tifft Street, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. Nearby residents were also told to shelter in place overnight and keep windows and doors closed. Emergency officials at the site also advised not touching any debris from the plume.

Frontier Central School District and St. Francis High School will be closed on Thursday. Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said officials are meeting at 6 a.m. on Thursday to decide whether Lackawanna schools will be closed or not.

Szymanski said he had been told by a number of experts that they have "never ever heard of a fire like" the ongoing fire.

[Gallery: Fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site]

At a news conference Wednesday evening, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said the fire is contained to the site, but the blaze is still not out.

"At this time, it's still burning quite freely," Whitfield said.

Video from earlier in the day Wednesday shows the extensive fire:

The blaze on Route 5 in Lackawanna started around 7 a.m. The facility that's burning is roughly the size of six city blocks. Its rising black smoke could be seen from miles away and has disrupted traffic and activity at area schools.

"It's a big facility. There's a lot of fire. There's a lot of things burning," Whitfield said. "Not all of it is burning at this time, but a lot of it is. And that which is not burning may soon be in the near future."

Emergency officials also dealt with a shift in the wind this afternoon, which was carrying the smoke further east toward Orchard Park Wednesday afternoon.

Fred K. Heinle, director of development for Lackawanna, told reporters at the scene on Wednesday morning a "hot lightbulb" fell, sparking the blaze when it came into contact with combustible materials.

But Wednesday afternoon, Whitfield and Gregory J. Butcher, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Emergency Services office, said no official cause has been determined.

[Gallery of blaze at former Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna]

Here's some video of the building collapsing from News reader Clayton Kummer:

Some firefighters who were inside the building trying to suppress "hot spots" had to be pulled out as the fire began to spread again, Butcher said. One Buffalo firefighter twisted his ankle and broke it as he was pulling hoses, Whitfield said.

"We’re using water wherever we can. It’s very difficult to get water on the actual fire because of the size of the building," he said.

Szymanski estimated "possibly two million gallons of water had been used" on the fire to this point.

The fire is costing the city overtime pay for ongoing work of police, fire and other workers, the mayor said, but added that "safety first" continues to dictate how the city government is dealing with the situation.

In addition to more than 100 firefighters called to the scene, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent representatives to the scene.

A fire rages at the former Bethlehem Steel storage along Route 5, in Lackawanna, on Wednesday, Nov. 9. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

A fire rages at the former Bethlehem Steel storage along Route 5, in Lackawanna, on Nov. 9. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Air quality in the area is being monitored, Heinle said. "I can't imagine that it's very good," he said.

"We are continuing to vigorously monitor the air quality as the plume has sunk down into part of Hamburg," Butcher said later.

EPA officials set up air-monitoring equipment in the vicinity of the site and hazardous materials teams from the county have four air-sampling sites downwind in Hamburg, said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein.

“Testing conducted for volatile organic compounds are showing readings of zero, and oxygen levels in ambient air are normal,” Burstein said. “People who live or work in the surrounding area can expect the extremely unpleasant smell from the fire to linger for a few days to weeks.”

Burstein added: “The smell may be aggravating, but the odor itself poses no health risk.”

The health commissioner said residents around the site and downwind of it may notice “a layer of fine soot” on their houses and outside equipment.

It can be removed by hosing those areas down or washing them with “a mild detergent solution,” she said.

Health officials advised residents to avoid touching the ashes or soot and to “wash your hands, change your clothes or shower” if contact is made.

The owner of the building, Great Lakes Industrial Development, said in a news release that the fire damaged space occupied by Industrial Materials Recycling, a company it said recycles post-industrial plastics.

The fire was discovered at about 7 a.m. after employees of Industrial Materials Recycling held a daily safety inspection, walk-through and staff meeting before beginning operations, Great Lakes Industrial Development said.

[Related: Lackawanna officials criticize DEC plan to shift – not remove – Bethlehem Steel-era waste from site]

Other tenants at the site include what the company described as "a mix of light manufacturing, logistics, storage and steel supply businesses."

Great Lakes officials said they do not know the source or cause of the fire. The extent of the damage has not been determined, the company said.

Residents on Lincoln Avenue, off of Route 5, were asked by police to leave their homes over fears the building would collapse; part of it later did.

Hamburg police were reporting falling, burning debris across the town and urging residents to keep doors and windows closed. Authorities urged residents from Lackawanna to Athol Springs to shelter in place, including those in Hamburg and Lake Shore, Buffalo police said on Twitter.

[Related: Neighboring school districts react to big Lackawanna fire]

A variety of business operations inside the building — from metal fabrication to cold storage to paper and plastic recycling and pallet manufacturing — have made it difficult to contain the fire, Butcher said.

Emergency officials promised to release further information with regard to the potential shift in winds and what actions may be taken involving schools and other parts of the Orchard Park community.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office Air 1 helicopter was in the air using its thermal imaging technology to pinpoint hot spots inside the building.

One firefighter suffered a minor knee injury and transported to a local hospital.

"Much of the building has already collapsed," the fire commissioner said.

[Related: Bethlehem Steel complex has long history]

The size of the fire dwarfs the size of the blaze at the Lockport tire recycling facility over the summer, said Butcher, of the county emergency services office.

[Related: Former Bethlehem Steel plant site had fire in October in different building]

A number of explosions could be heard coming from inside the building before the roof collapsed. An employee told a News reporter the fire started around 7 a.m.

Russell Dailey lives on Pine Street, just north of the fire scene. He was leaving home with his wife as he drove her to work.

"As soon as we came outside, we saw the black smoke," Dailey said. "God only knows what's in there. Probably asbestos lining the walls."

By the time he was headed back home, police had blocked off part of Route 5. "I had to park my car on the other side of the First Ward," he said. He walked home from near Smoke Creek.

A Madison Street resident, who declined to give his name, said he and his wife were in bed when the fire began. "Our bedroom is upstairs and we could see it starting," the man said.

They closed their windows and turned off the furnace so smoke wouldn't enter their house. The wind is blowing south toward Woodlawn. "We got lucky with the wind here," he said.

Neighbors said one of the buildings is used for a storage business and contains items including cars, boats, RVs and personal watercraft.

A sign on a fence at the fire scene advertises winter storage. A reporter who called a phone number on the sign reached the voicemail of Dr. Bob's Storage, which identifies its location as on the former Bethlehem Steel site.

Buffalo firefighters responded to the scene as mutual aid.

"This thing is massive," a fire official said over the scanner.

Hazmat crews from Buffalo and Hamburg, as well as Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties, were called to the scene.

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