Home Fire News Huge fire tears through Philipsburg

Huge fire tears through Philipsburg

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Almost one block of North Front Street lay in ruin Sunday afternoon, leaving a black hole in the historic downtown core as 250 firefighters recovered from fighting the borough’s worst blaze in 25 years. The fire, which began about 8:30 p.m. Saturday and burned for more than 15 hours, destroyed or damaged seven businesses and as many as 30 apartments on North Front and Presqueisle streets. Three apartment residents who were missing Saturday night were located Sunday and are safe, fire officials said. Twelve families were left homeless but have found shelter, American Red Cross volunteers said. It wasn’t clear exactly how many people have been displaced. Two red-brick buildings facing North Front Street between Laurel and Presqueisle streets suffered the bulk of the damage, although two neighboring buildings sustained severe water and smoke damage, said Tim Townsend, assistant chief of the Philipsburg Fire Department. All the buildings, known for their old-world architecture, are about a century old. The biggest fire-damaged structure, an L-shaped building that wraps from Front to Presqueisle and cradles the CM Sports building, was set to be condemned this morning and may need to be leveled, structural engineer Bob Davis said. Centre County officials asked him to assess the situation. “My concern is that the value of the building is such that it probably needs to come down,” Davis said. He said that its roof collapsed into the third floor but that some of its ornate decorative trim may be salvaged. Davis said the L-shaped building has suffered severe structural damage and could fall onto the CM Sports building, which sits at the intersection of Presqueisle and Front. People should stay out of both buildings until the structure is demolished or stabilized, he said. “It’s a blow to a struggling community,” county Commissioner Chris Exarchos said, surveying the damage Sunday afternoon. “This does not help. But these are pretty tough people.”Philipsburg has strived in recent years to revitalize its hardscrabble downtown, with some successes. The fire left some elected officials sounding bewildered and wondering what could be next. “The biggest loss, of course, is to the people who (used) these buildings,” said Susan Sidorick, an American Red Cross volunteer. “But the lost architecture, too,” is another blow. Investigators began searching Sunday morning for the cause of the fire, which witnesses said they first spotted at 14 N. Front St., on an apartment floor just behind and above Carolle’s Kitchen restaurant. State police Trooper Michael Eppolito, a fire marshal, confirmed that the investigation is focusing there. John and Karen Gilday, of Houtzdale, own the building, fire officials said. Keith Blake owns another damaged building, they said. When Townsend, the assistant fire chief, first arrived on the scene Saturday night, he said the flames were jumping 50 feet high. The fire was contained about 12:30 a.m., but firefighters continued to douse flare-ups and hot spots well into Sunday. By 10:45 a.m., only Philipsburg’s Hope and Reliance fire companies remained at the scene. About 250 firefighters from Centre and Clearfield counties joined the fight Saturday night, attacking the blaze from several directions. A number of bucket trucks hoisted firefighters and fire hoses high above the fire as flames illuminated the sky and sent smoky plumes through town. In the heat and humidity Saturday night, the thick smoke from the fire hung over the downtown. Exhausted firefighters, after battling flames in heavy turnout gear, lay down on the pavement when taking breaks to cool off but had difficulty finding a clear space to breathe. One apartment resident suffered smoke inhalation; another suffered facial burns and smoke inhalation, emergency officials said. Both were taken to Philipsburg Area Hospital, where they were treated and released, the hospital reported. Four or five firefighters also were taken to the hospital and treated for heat exhaustion or smoke inhalation. They were released, as well, emergency officials said. Nearby residents, including elderly people at the Presbyterian Home of Moshannon Heights, were evacuated because of concerns about the smoke. Emergency responders at the scene included eight fire companies and three ambulance companies from Centre County, and 16 fire companies and one ambulance company from Clearfield County, according to Randy Rockey, Centre County’s emergency-management director. Another complication overnight was the water supply. Firefighters pumped some 8 million gallons from Philipsburg’s hydrants, operated by Pennsylvania American Water Co. Water workers notified firefighters that they were rapidly depleting a water reserve, and so about 12:30 a.m. they shut off the hydrants and began trucking water in from a nearby creek. Sidorick, the Red Cross volunteer and a Philipsburg resident, said her tap water at home looked slightly brown late Saturday or early Sunday. “We were pulling pretty hard from their system,” said Hope Fire Company firefighter Bill Bennett. But there was “no way we were going to suck it dry,” he said. Part of Presqueisle Street near the fire scene, and North Front and Laurel streets remained closed to traffic Sunday. Townsend said North Front between Laurel and Presqueisle will probably stay closed at least another day. He expressed gratitude to the dozens of Moshannon Valley residents who pitched in over the weekend, helping firefighters with food and bottled water, cold towels and other support. “The fire department really appreciates” them, Townsend said. “Whatever they could do, they were offering.”

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