A fire that broke out Thursday morning destroyed four buildings on West State Street in Johnstown and damaged as many as 13 more in the neighborhood.
The fire started shortly after 10 a.m. and quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. One witness reported hearing an explosion in or near the Arrow Finishing building shortly before the fire was spotted.
Among the four buildings that were destroyed were Arrow Finishing, the former Gordon Finishing building - which was in the process of being converted into a microbrewery - and the former Evans Glove Co., while The Club, a nearby bar, was damaged. Officials and witnesses also said embers ignited fires in dried leaves around the neighborhood and on the roofs of as many as 12 nearby homes.
City Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said several firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, but there were no other injuries reported as of 1:30 p.m. Heberer said there were sufficient water supplies as firefighters from several counties continued to pour water on the crumbling buildings.
An excavator was tearing into one of several unrecognizable structures on West State Street by about 1 p.m.
Heberer said the fire did not appear initially suspicious. Crews were working on a roof on one of the West State Street buildings before the blaze started this morning, but it was unclear yet exactly how the fire started.
Firefighters were flying overhead in a helicopter looking for additional fires earlier in the day. Embers the size of charcoal briquettes were carried into the air, setting fire to two garages - one on North Melcher, the other off McMartin Street - and to a large garbage container near the U.S. Post Office on North William Street.
Residents along North Melcher Street were squinting and shielding their faces to breathe as the streets filled with acrid smoke blown by the wind. Brian Baldwin looked pensively at his home on North Melcher Street just after noon, hoping it wouldn't catch fire.
"They've got to get this knocked down so it doesn't burn my house down," Baldwin said.
The fire sent smoke billowing into the air that could be seen from as far away as Schenectady. Meanwhile, roads surrounding the scene were riddled with fire hoses stretching around trees and vehicles.
Heberer said no hazardous materials were found in any of the old buildings.
Fulton County Clerk William Eschler, who watched the fire from the nearby Fulton County Office Building until that building was evacuated, said flames and soot shot into the sky, with soot falling on buildings and cars throughout the neighborhood, including the parking lot at the county building.
The nearby Fulton County Office for the Aging was evacuated shortly after the fire was reported, and the county office building was evacuated about 10:50 a.m., officials said. Residents along nearby North Melcher Street were also told to leave their homes.
All city schools remained open, including Johnstown High School and Warren Street Elementary School, both of which are located within a mile of the fire, but afternoon kindergarten classes in the district were cancelled.
Noel Chest was among dozens of people standing along North Melcher Street, watching the fire after being told to evacuate her home on that street. Chest said she had to pull her 80-year-old grandmother out of the house.
"It was insane," she said. "It's like nothing I've ever seen before in my life."
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