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Some 200 families neighboring huge Lockport fire evacuated

WBFO's Marian Hetherly

Firefighters continued to battle a huge blaze at a tire recycling operation in Lockport which was "contained" as of early Thursday afternoon. City officials said they would determine later in the day whether evacuated residents could return home. Stopping short of confirming it, police acknowledged they are aware of reports of a missing person who may have been on the fire scene.

Crews have been at the scene at Stevens Street and Ohio Street since Wednesday evening. As of noon Thursday, the fire was still working but city officials called it "contained."

A published report suggests the cause may be arson. The Buffalo News quoted High Treat International Recycling owner Derek Martin as saying the fire was "maliciously set by kids."

Investigators would not confirm that during a Thursday noon-hour news conference in Lockport City Hall.

"The fire still is currently under investigation," said Lockport Fire Chief Patrick Brady. "I don't have a lot to say on it because the investigation is ongoing."

Jeff Artieri, whose family has lived on Stevens Street across the street from the company for some 20 years, said he knocked on the door of one of the buildings on the property when he first saw smoke and fire Wednesday evening to make sure no one was trapped inside.

"I was down there when the initial fire happened, and then they let us stay until it started rolling down the building. Then the smoke just got thicker and thicker and started coming over the house, and that's when they cleared everybody out," Artieri said. "They cleared out Bristol, they cleared out West, they cleared everybody back. So we were almost as far as West Avenue and then that's when they told us, 'You're not getting back in tonight and call friends' and that's where we were able to stay for the night."

Artieri said officials allowed him to get back into his home to quickly retrieve medications Thursday morning. He said there was smoke and the smell of burning rubber in the home and that officials told him to check in every few hours for an update on when the family could return.

At one point, as many 200 firefighters were involved in the effort. One veteran firefighter in Niagara County said this is the largest blaze he has encountered.

An evacuation advisory was issued Wednesday night for residents in the area of the Stevens Street blaze.  The following was issued by police:

"The City of Lockport Police are asking residents living on West Avenue, Stevens, Prospect, Ohio, South Bristol, Bacon, Webb, and Windsor Streets to evacuate their residences due to a large commercial fire. Lockport residents evacuated can proceed to the Salvation Army building at Cottage and Walnut or North Park or Anna Merrit schools."

City officials said they would determine by late Thursday afternoon whether residents could return to their homes.

Social media reports hinted Thursday that a teenage male had been missing since the outbreak of the fire and there were fears he may have been inside the building.

Lockport Police acknowledged they were aware of those social media reports but stopped short of confirming a missing person early Thursday.

"We're actually investigating that right now," said Lockport Police Detective Lt. Todd Chenez.

"There has been speculation that this individual is in the building and has not been heard from since."

According to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office the first alarm came in just after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening. Crews used water from the Erie Canal during the massive effort.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation returned to the scene Thursday morning. A spokesman said experts continue to review air quality issues in the vicinity of the fire. A DEC Spill Response team was called the fire.  DEC Region 9 Technician Raymond Jonak spoke with WBFO's Marian Hetherly about what's burning in the recycling plant. 

"My understand is that there is thousands of one-ton bags of what they call 'crumb rubber'. It's a recycling finished product, almost little pellets and that's why it's still burning. It's a very volatile product, and like a tire fire, once it starts, it's very difficult to stop," explained Jonak.

The DEC is there to review the run-off of the product from the fire.  Mayor Anne McCaffrey, during the Thursday noon-hour news conference in City Hall, spoke of air and water monitoring by the DEC and Niagara County Health Department, but said up to that point there was no evidence of serious health risks.

"Right now, the water quality appears to be fine," Mayor McCaffrey said. "We're not seeing any adverse issues with our water. We do not have any air quality issues at this time that the Health Department has identified."

Even so, through Thursday motorists passing near the fire scene could see a continuing plume of smoke billowing from the fire site and occasionally smell the distinct odor of burning rubber.

Approximately 48 fire companies working to massive amounts of water on the fire.  Mayor McCaffrey says their water plant was able to provide more than 11-million gallons during the fire, about three times the facility's normal production.

Up to 200 residents were forced from their homes. As of Thursday afternoon they were not given the OK to return. City officials say, for safety reasons, they would not allow those residents back until the fire was finally under control.

Mayor McCaffrey, meanwhile, discouraged other residents from coming to the scene.

"We have a lot of trucks in the area, certainly fire hoses, emergency equipment and a lot of work being done," she said. "For us to facilitate a quick putting out of this fire, we need people to stay away."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.