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What makes fighting the Bethlehem fire so difficult

Once Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti saw the blaze that was consuming the former Bethlehem Steel plant Wednesday morning, he quickly turned over the battle to the Buffalo Fire Department. That was just 30 minutes into the fire.

The fire was too big for Lackawanna’s 50-member fire department. Buffalo has 700.

“Buffalo has the experience and the resources for a fire this size,” Galanti said Thursday as the blaze continued to burn inside the partially collapsed former stripping mill.

Several factors complicate this battle.

First, there is the size of the building, 1 million square feet – or about six city blocks.

[Related: Route 5 closed through Friday morning as residents are evacuated]

Then there were the contents stored inside, plastics from a recycling business and fiberglass boats and automobiles.

Add to that the residue - hydraulic fluids, lubricants and motor oil - in the building from decades as a steel factory.

What’s more, the fire was able to travel and grow unimpeded. No walls to slow the fire’s path.

“It’s just enormous. It’s a wide open space. That allows the heat and smoke to travel more freely inside to any combustibles,” Galanti said.

Firefighters did catch one break. They were able to enter a section of the building and remove several propane tanks used to power forklifts and other equipment.

[Gallery of blaze at former Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna]

But when it came to putting water on the fire, that had to be be done from the outside, because of the risks of the structure collapsing, Buffalo Fire Division Chief Patrick M. Britzzalaro said.

Fires in large industrial complexes are nothing like the residential blazes firefighters frequently tackle, Britzzalaro explained.

“In a normal house fire, we go to the fire. We take hand lines inside the structure and extinguish the fire.

"But in a large building such as this, with the amount of fire we have, we have to fight it from the outside using aerial equipment,” Britzzalaro said.

Tower ladder trucks with “in-line piping” running beneath the ladder rungs up to a mounted turret on a platform are the main workhorses, pouring millions of gallons of water onto the fire from five-inch hoses connected to fire hydrants.

“It’s almost like having a water main above ground,” the chief said.

At the height of the Lackawanna blaze, five tower ladder trucks were at work.

[Video: Old Bethlehem Steel site: its past and its future]

But even when these massive fires are declared under control, as was the case in Lackawanna late Wednesday night, many large and small hot spots continue to burn, making it hazardous to enter.

“We didn’t know about the hot spots here because they were camouflaged by large sections of collapsed roof,” the division chief said.

So yet another exterior strategy comes into play.

“Right now, we’re waiting for heavy equipment from a demolition company. We’re going to start picking apart some of the building probably with a large crane, but even the construction workers can’t get within what we call the collapse zone,” Britzzalaro said.

After the equipment opens up an access, the crane and other heavy equipment will clear away other hazards to allow firefighters safe passage inside to directly extinguish blazes.

The cause of the fire may not be known “for some time,” Galanti said, though a spark from a bursting hot light bulb, initially thought to be the cause, has been ruled out.

The Buffalo Fire Marshal’s Office is leading the investigation into the cause of the fire with assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Erie County sheriff’s arson investigators, Galanti said.

Asked if there were any signs of arson, Galanti said, “Not at this point. We have no idea what caused it.”

The chief has also spoken with a representative from Great Lakes Industrial Development, owner of the property.

“Basically, he said he was glad no one was injured and he thanked firefighters,” Galanti said.

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