With some help from above, Buffalo firefighters succeeded Friday afternoon in dousing a stubborn, stealthy three-alarm fire in a massive North Buffalo structure that once housed a Curtiss-Wright Aircraft factory.
Firefighters thought they had put out the blaze at approximately 1:30 p.m. but a thermal-imaging camera aboard the Erie County Sheriff’s Department helicopter, Air One, detected other hot spots in the ceiling of the brick, two-story building which in one section contains a tire warehouse that was spared damage.
“We thought the fire was out but there are hidden spots in the building with brick-walled partitions and compartments and the fire had traveled through the ceiling along a catwalk,” Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said. “It’s impossible for us to get a complete visual on a building of this size and that is why we called in Air One. We thought the fire was out, but Air One arrived and its thermal-imaging camera detected that it had spread to the abandoned section of the building.”
Getting to the abandoned rear portion of the building, several blocks in from Military Road, proved more challenging than the relatively easy access at the front of the structure on the 2000 block of Elmwood Avenue, where the former M. Wile & Co. clothes factory had been situated.
Firefighters had to wait until a city public works crew arrived in a high loader to move a concrete barrier blocking a roadway onto the back of the site off Norris Avenue.
Then there was the threat of roof collapses.
“A six-foot-by-six-foot section of roof did collapse while firefighters were inside and we had to pull our personnel from the building,” Whitfield said. “Fortunately, there were no injuries and we are grateful that the fire did not spread to the portion of the building used as a tire warehouse. If fire had hit that rubber, it would have been a huge problem.”
The tires, he added, appeared to be new.
The cause remains under investigation.
Further adding to the difficulty of battling the blaze was the danger of firefighters becoming disoriented.
“The building is tight and dark inside and with the heavy smoke, you can walk inside a short distance and not be able to see and become easily disoriented,” the commissioner said.
The sprawling structure had claimed the life of a firefighter decades earlier.
North Division Chief William Boland perished on Jan. 1, 1957, apparently from smoke inhalation. His death, fire officials said, resulted in the introduction of self-contained air packs for breathing – now standard equipment worn by firefighters when they head inside blazing structures.
At the height of Friday’s blaze, which was reported at 12:04 p.m., some 70 firefighters were on the scene. It was declared extinguished at 3:39 p.m. and damage was set at $50,000 to the building and nothing to the contents.