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Hundreds evacuated from neighborhood near Lackawanna fire

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Jerry Urban
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With a massive fire still consuming buildings on the old Bethlehem Steel site, residents of the community next to the plant have been moved out.

The fire and electronic monitors showing unsafe air around the fire led to an evacuation order from Mayor Geoff Szymanski around noon Thursday, saying people should leave Bethlehem Park.

"For their safety, we are asking everybody to either move in temporarily with a loved one or family member or friend or we're having police officers and firefighters going door to door and asking people if they need assistance to relocate to one of our warming shelters, which is going to be at both the high school and the senior center, both on Martin Road, in the center of the city." Szymanski said.

Red Cross shelters have been set up in warming stations away from the community. The Red Cross says 13 people spent Thursday night at Lackawanna High School, where volunteers have cots and blankets, food, water and other support are available.

Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield says the fire is still burning and is far from out. The evacuation is the first in a series of steps in continuing to bring the fire totally under control.

"Some of the other things are repositioning equipment, bringing in additional assets, trying to make sure that we got the best shot we can in actually hitting the seat of the fire," Whitfield said.

Emergency managers don't want anyone inside because the building has already partially collapsed - and more is expected - which makes it a very dangerous fire scene.

Environmental officials say there are some toxic chemicals in the smoke, probably reflecting the plastics from the recycling operation inside the buildings, as well as the classic cars, boats and motor homes stored there and feeding the flames.

Besides the smoke, fire debris continues to blow across the area. Many millions of gallons of water have been pumped onto the fire. Whitfield says he doesn't know where it's going.

"It's going on the fire hopefully. I don't know. I know we don't have a problem with runoff," he says. "As far as we know DEC, EPA, Coast Guard are monitoring the runoff out in the lake of the water, near waterways. As far as we know, there's no problem with runoff from this fire."

Whitfield is rotating Buffalo firefighters through the fire scene, some on overtime. Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti says his department only has 50 firefighters to Buffalo's 700. Some volunteer firefighters were at the scene on Wednesday.

"It's a dynamic scene. We continue to change and move our assets around, as necessitated by the weather and everything else," Whitfield says.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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