A massive fire on West State Street in Johnstown on Thursday was started by a salvage contractor using a torch to cut metal, according to the results of a preliminary investigation.
The fire, which destroyed three old mills and another building, was whipped by swirling winds that carried embers throughout the city.
Those embers sparked as many as 12 more fires, including one in a dumpster next to the post office, at a carriage house behind 11 N. Melcher St. and in a pile of leaves several blocks away.
Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said the other fires were put out quickly, although one garage was a total loss.
The contractor, Land Escapes, is the same one hired by the city to do salvage work at old city-owned tanneries. Heberer said Land Escapes was working for a private party, not the city, on Thursday.
Nathan Auty of Land Escapes did not respond to a voice mail Thursday night.
Police were interviewing Auty and the owner of most of the buildings Thursday night.
The city sold 11 W. State St. to Hawk LLC of Towaco, N.J., in September for $25,000. Records indicate that the address of the corporation is the home of Jerry Kuziw, who did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment.
City officials said Kuziw planned to convert the former Lee Dye warehouse into a microbrewery and pub although no formal plans had been submitted.
“He just bought these properties,” Assessor Leamon Steele said.
The property was assessed at $35,000.
Also destroyed was Gordon Finishing, which is where the fire started, at 19 W. State St. Gordon was defunct and the building assessed at $30,550. Arrow Leather, at 23 W. State St., was operating and the building was assessed at $60,000. The former John Subik Real Estate building at 27 W. State St. was assessed for $29,000, Steele said.
The Club, formerly the Mars Bar, sustained some damage but was saved.
Heberer said firefighters didn’t have a chance to save the mills.
“It started at Gordon Finishing and it just took right off in the other buildings. Old, dry wood,” he said.
Heberer said firefighters arriving on the scene immediately called for mutual aid and in the end 125-150 firefighters from 17 departments in three counties were summoned.
Hundreds of people watched early Thursday as the fire raged. The nearby Office for the Aging and the county office building were evacuated and closed for the day.
Homes on North Melcher Street, many of which caught fire, were evacuated as well, as police went door to door to check on residents.
Peter Wilson of Johnstown stood at the top of the hill and just shook his head in amazement.
“It’s horrible,” he said.
Johnstown Supervisor Jack Callery was at the county office building for a committee meeting when the fire started shortly after 10 a.m.
“When it started there was no breeze. When that wind kicked up it really spread,” he said.
“This is unbelievable,” Noell Chest of 19 N. Melcher St. said as burning embers rained from the sky. “They’ve been telling us to watch our houses, the roofs.”
Initially, the spread of incidents overwhelmed responding personnel. Police Chief Greg Horning hauled hoses for firefighters. Department of Public Works crews set up barricades and directed traffic and kept an eye on reservoir levels.
As help arrived from other departments, pumpers were directed to the smaller fires around the neighborhood.
Paul Chamberlain, who owns a business called The Family Handyman, and his crew were on a job in the area when the fire broke out.
“I just tried to help. I’ve been running down there helping with hoses. We watered down three roofs, pulled a ladder right from the truck. There were so many fires in the neighborhood. There had to be eight or 10 fires,” Chamberlain said.
Robert Henry of 227 W. Main St. kept an anxious eye on his roof, where big chunks of embers had landed before he extinguished them.
“That one on the roof was as big as that notebook right there,” he told a reporter.
Callery said 11 W. State St. had been renovated on the outside and had just had a new roof installed.
Bob Guisti of Fonda saw the smoke and drove to Johnstown to check it out from the Washington Street, or back side, of the fire scene.
“I hate to see old buildings like that burn down. That’s our heritage right there,” he said.
Mayor Sarah Slingerland shared those sentiments.
“It’s historically unique. You hate to see it go. But it’s pretty impressive when you have an event like this and everything is so well-coordinated. But it’s sad.”
Heberer said this was the worst fire in the city since the one on Main Street next to Johnstown Dodge in the late 1980s.
He said the mutual aid system worked well and he was amazed at how everyone helped.
“Everybody pitching in, police officers, private citizens. It looks bad. It could’ve been a lot worse,” he said.
City Treasurer Mike Gifford pointed to the surreal sight of melted insulation hanging from wires strung on telephone poles on the opposite side of streets from smoldering buildings.
By the afternoon the county loaned the city a track hoe and the city used its own track hoe to sift through the rubble and help firefighters extinguish the smoldering ruins.
Heberer said he would have more information today when the investigation is completed.
“We’re going to be here for a while,” he said.
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Categories: Schenectady County