Wrong time, wrong place, wrong day.
It all added up to a very long day for commuters — and anyone else in a large swath of the Capital Region trying to get from Point A to Point B.
A truck fire on the outside shoulder of the Northway just before rush hour Wednesday sparked a 17-acre brush fire on a day perfectly suited to fuel such a blaze. The fire led to the shutdown of the major artery’s northbound lanes, snarling traffic in three counties into the night.
Interstate 87 was closed between exits 10 and 11 following the 3 p.m. fire and through the evening commute, bringing traffic to a standstill on the Northway through southern Saratoga County and affecting traffic on secondary roads in Saratoga, Schenectady and Albany counties.
The lead fire chief on the scene said the highway had to be closed in order to fight the brush fire, since trucks ferrying water would not have been able to navigate the traffic and civilian vehicles around the scene would have created a hazard.
All three northbound lanes of I-87 remained closed between the two exits until a single lane reopened shortly before 9 p.m. The remaining two lanes were reopened about 40 minutes later.
Local fire departments led by Round Lake were assisted by seven New York state forest rangers and the New York State Police, which brought in a helicopter to serve as a fire spotter, according to Carl Zeilman, director of the Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services.
Zeilman said the fire area south of Exit 11 covered 17.1 acres near the village of Round Lake and came on a day the National Weather Service declared the risk of brush fires at a “red flag level.”
“There was low humidity, gusty winds and dry fuel — dry leaves and twigs. All that played a role,” Zeilman said. “The conditions were just prime for something like this to happen.”
There were no reported injuries battling the fire, and the driver of the truck that caught fire — believed to have started because of an engine problem — escaped unharmed. But there were more than a few frayed nerves battling the traffic.
When authorities closed all three lanes of the northbound Northway between exits 10 and 11, they diverted traffic along local roads. The result was backups that stretched into Albany County and clogged secondary roads as motorists either inched through the detour or tried to circumnavigate the Northway entirely. Traffic was especially heavy on Route 9, a popular north-south alternative to the Northway.
Some just gave up: A junior varsity tennis match at Saratoga Springs was canceled because the visiting team from Averill Park could not get to the school.
In addition, two northbound Northway lanes were blocked for a time further south, near Exit 2W in Colonie, due to an accident at 5:55 p.m. Also, an early evening accident on Route 146 in Clifton Park knotted traffic in both directions there, adding to the general gridlock that gripped the Capital Region.
The Ace Hardware truck that sparked the main traffic meltdown was reduced to a charred husk by a fire that filled the area with thick black smoke and spit flames into nearby brush and woods, prompting the highway closure and ensuing traffic chaos.
“It started with a cab on fire, then the trailer, then the side of the hill and all over,” Round Lake Fire Chief Frank Mazza said. “It was so dry out.”
By 6:40 p.m., state police reported the fire was under control, and officials were weighing whether to reopen the three lanes. But almost two hours later, fire operations had just concluded, forest rangers were doing a final sweep and cleanup by the state Department of Transportation was still underway.
At the height of rush hour, the Northway was backed up for several miles — and several hours. At the Cobble Pond Farms Exit 11 Truck Stop in Ballston Lake, clerk Mike Villano said a stream of customers had been coming in, talking about nothing but the traffic.
“We’ve had a steady flow of people talking about it,” he said. “One guy said it was backed up to the troopers’ station by Exit 9, the rest area.”
It would get worse. Much worse.
Tweets also flowed from the scene.
“been chillin on the #Northway for an hour and a half so far and went not even 2 miles … we are literally going 1mph right now,” @Leahpatraa tweeted at 5:20 p.m.
An hour later, she reported she was still traveling the same 1 mph — and was still a mile from Exit 10.
Michael Fraser simply tweeted: “TRAFFIC ALERT: The Northway is backed up to Florida.” He did not mean the town.
Mazza empathized with the people stuck in traffic, but said there was no choice but to close the highway. Not only were some fire operations staged from the road, but trucks ferrying water traveled south from Exit 11 in the closed northbound lanes to avoid traffic.
“I’m sure a lot of people were upset,” he said. “For the safety of the guys working on the Northway, we needed to keep the Northway closed. … It wasn’t feasible to keep the Northway open.”