Residents who live near the former Bethlehem Steel site that went up in flames Wednesday morning were allowed to return to their homes Friday afternoon.
A dozen fire evacuees had stayed overnight at a Red Cross shelter set up at Lackawanna High School, while others stayed with relatives after an evacuation was ordered Thursday afternoon because of concerns over the quality of the air.
Although the evacuation order was lifted, the fire was still burning Friday – and the Erie County Department of Health encouraged residents in Bethlehem Park to keep windows and doors closed, recirculate indoor air and avoid outdoor activity.
As crews worked to tear down the smoldering remnants so firefighters could access pockets of fire deep within the site, a portion of Route 5 remained closed Friday between Ridge Road and Route 179. It had been closed from Tifft Street to Lake Avenue.
And the previously announced cause of the fire – a hot light bulb falling into an area of combustible materials – has been ruled out, officials said. But there was no indication investigators would know anytime soon what started the blaze.
As the fire died down, air in the area was returning to “normal background quality,” officials said Friday.
Some early results about the air quality came Friday evening.
Air monitoring data indicated that levels of particulates, an indicator of smoke, have returned to expected levels for this time of year at the Bethlehem site, a change that led to the lifting of the evacuation order, according to an analysis released Friday evening by the state Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation.
The Department of Environmental Conservation set up two air monitors to the east and east-northeast of the fire. The locations were selected based on forecast wind direction and placed within the residential neighborhoods on Madison and Electric avenues, officials said.
The agency reported that air quality monitoring will continue.
The plume from the fire passed over the monitor on Madison Avenue in the afternoon and evening of Nov. 10. The plume moved easterly and triggered the monitor on Electric Avenue early on Nov. 11. Particulate matter concentrations at times during these periods reached what the agency terms the “hazardous air quality index category,” but then decreased to normal levels.
The state reported that the results of sampling for volatile organic compounds will be available next week.
Earlier in the day, Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, had said results of the air monitoring by the state Department of Conservation would be released soon. The agency will try to post the results on its website, he said.
“They are going to try and get it out, possibly this weekend,” Kearns said.
But because of the Veterans Day holiday, it may not be possible to analyze and post the information until early next week, he was told.
Kearns said he had a lengthy discussion with the Governor’s Office and representatives of the DEC and state Department of Health, which have committed to releasing the air monitoring to the public.
When the link is provided to Kearns, he said he would put it on his website. Community members can call his office at 608-6099, or email him at email@example.com, to get the link when it is available.
Lackawanna Mayor, Geoffrey M. Szymanski, on opening up of Bethlehem Park after massive fire atBethlehem Steel Plant pic.twitter.com/NemBOBrcSa
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) November 11, 2016
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the county Health Department said that even though the emergency evacuation order was lifted, residents of Bethlehem Park should know that “smoke can contain many different chemicals that can cause airway and lung irritation and lead to an increase in symptoms associated with chronic lung disease.”
People who have breathing problems – such as asthma, those with heart disease, children and the elderly – may be particularly sensitive to “particulate matter” in the air.
Health officials also said there has not been an increase in reports of people suffering from respiratory ailments in the affected communities but that the Health Department would continue to monitor the situation.
Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski told The Buffalo News that air quality readings performed by the Environmental Protection Agency found “zero particulate matter in the readings throughout the city.”
Particulate matter is the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air, according to the EPA. Some are large enough or dark enough to be seen. Others may be detected only with an electron microscope, the agency said on its website.
The fire has been particularly difficult to put out because of the strong winds on Thursday. Wind direction kept changing, which affected how firefighters battled the blaze.
Firefighting efforts stopped for a while late Thursday night because high winds were sending large sheets of sheet metal into the areas making the firefighting at that time unsafe.
The peak wind gust at the airport came at 11 p.m. Thursday and measured 47 mph, said Shawn Smith of the National Weather Service.
Overnight Thursday, winds shifted from out of the west to out of the northwest, sending smoke toward Orchard Park, said Smith. Friday, winds were expected to come from the north and slightly northwest, meaning the smoke would blow to the south and southeast into Hamburg, Smith said.
“The wind is in a westerly direction, and we’re fighting it from the north side so at least we don’t have the smoke in our faces,” Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph J. Galanti said Friday.
There were other complications. Overnight reports about trespassers on steel plant property caused police to cordon off the area immediately surrounding the fire scene.
Rt 5 will remain closed today & at least through morning tomorrow to allow crews to safely demolish buildings and fight #BethlehemSteelFire
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) November 11, 2016
Janet Weeks stayed the night in her Bethlehem Park home: "What am I going to run for? I've been here 44 years." pic.twitter.com/9unz2gRfjt
— Jane Kwiatkowski (@kwiatkowskiBN) November 11, 2016
The county Department of Emergency Services and Homeland Security are monitoring the quality of air and the runoff created by the thousands of gallons of water being poured on the fire, said Gregory Butcher, deputy commissioner of emergency services for Erie County.
“We’re monitoring it actively to make sure there are no toxins in the runoff,” Butcher said. “This is not a complete demolition process. It will move to another phase once the fire is out.”
A Buffalo fire official discussed asbestos.
“The demolition firms contracted to tear down the structure are licensed in asbestos abatement,” said Garnell Whitfield, commissioner of the Buffalo Fire Department. “They are assessing the scene for asbestos and other materials.”
As crews used heavy equipment on what remains of the building, the walls of the structure, composed of brick and steel, were beginning to buckle Friday. Only two of the building’s smokestacks remain.
“We can’t open up Route 5 until they are pushed in. It’s a safety issue. We don’t want them falling into the road,” Szymanski said.
Friday, the mayor said the state of emergency in the city would remain in effect until further notice. He said garbage pickup scheduled for Friday in Bethlehem Park will be rescheduled for sometime next week.
“We’re really looking to put a quality dent in this fire,” Szymanski said early Friday.
News Staff Reporters Matt Gryta and Henry Davis contributed to this report.