Within a matter of hours, nearly a century of vital Salamanca history was reduced to rubble.
In what is being called one of the largest fires in the history of Cattaraugus County, more than 40 fire departments responded to a call May 7 to help fight a blaze at the vacant Fancher Furniture Co. building on Rochester Street.
When the flames were extinguished and the smoke cleared, two vacant buildings and a current business were deemed total losses.
“I’ve been in the fire service since 1980 and have seen a good many fires, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire career,” Chris Baker, Cattaraugus County Fire Coordinator, said. “There were other firefighters that have been doing this for many more years and they said they hadn’t seen anything like this in over 50 years. I don’t know what to compare it to.”
The fire was an event the Salamanca Fire Department had been preparing for since the building, once a thriving factory and warehouse for furniture shipping around the world, became vacant in early 2009. Most recently owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians, the two vacant buildings totaled about six acres and overshadowed the west end of Rochester Street, located in the industrial district of the city.
In January, the sprinkler and heating system were shut off - foreshadowing what could happen to the building and nearby businesses if a fire erupted.
“That was just a red flag for us,” assistant fire chief Ed Frederickson said about the lack of a sprinkler system in the building. “We pre-planned this building numerous times and it went better than expected.”
The fire began near a loading dock on the east side of the property’s largest building. Salamanca police Sgt. Benjamin Whitmore was on a routine patrol when he noticed smoke rising from the windows.
By 5:30 p.m., fire crews were at the scene to begin battling a blaze they had been preparing for.
“We arrived at the scene to find heavy fire on the east end and started to attack it,” Frederickson explained.
Within a half hour, flames had engulfed nearly a quarter of the building and black smoke contrasted an otherwise sunny sky. Witnesses who arrived at the scene later said they could see the black smoke from as far away as Randolph and Allegany.
By 7 p.m., the entire four-story building was on fire. In addition, wind had driven flames across the street to a vacant warehouse. It also began to burn Luminite Products, a laser-engraving company located nearby. At 7:30 p.m., Sala-manca Mayor Jeffrey Pond declared a state of emergency in the city because of concerns about what may have been stored in the buildings, such as chemicals, and forecasted high winds. In addition, some of the city lost power and cell phone service.
As the fire raged, hundreds of bystanders kept their distance but watched the black smoke rise from the buildings. The fire was aided by easterly winds, which help it spread through the building. Small brush fires on the hillside near East State Street started due to wind-driven ash and embers.
While the focus of the firefighting remained keeping the blaze under control, crews were also faced with another potential threat - the wood-filled yard of Salamanca Lumber located less than 100 yards from the fire.
“Kudos to everybody because the lumber mill was saved,” Baker said. “That was a feat in itself. With the fire storm out there it had the potential that a couple well-placed embers could have kicked that off and some other places that could have gone up. Everybody just pulled together.”
Assistant fire chief Barney Lee, who also serves as the city’s code enforcement officer, said that the city should be proud of its firefighters, as well as the firefighters who helped in the effort, to save Salamanca Lumber and nearby McHone Industries.
“The good side of this is that we saved properties valued at $2.2 million, and that (figure) does not include the value of the product that Salamanca lumber has,” he said. “We are very proud of our men and the members who worked through the night to save many jobs that we still have in this city.”
As the fire continued after sundown and flames lit up the evening sky, firefighting crews also had to deal with more uncompromising weather. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for all of western New York at approximately 11 p.m., and a brief storm moved through the area less than an hour later.
“We did have a thunderstorm cell move through and we shut down operations and sheltered our people until the storm passed,” Chief Frederickson explained.
More than six hours after smoke was first seen emerging from the building, the fire was officially declared under control at midnight. Within that time, the blaze had reduced the vacant buildings and the main offices of Luminite to flaming rubble. The fire was aggressively fought until 3 a.m., and fire crews were on the scene the following day to extinguish hot spots. By Sunday, any free standing walls were demolished by a private contractor hired by the Seneca Nation.
During the fight against the fire, water was fed from several municipal sources, Baker said, as well as from the Allegany River. Six aerial devices were used and two others were placed on standby. And when the smoke cleared, officials said the way the fire was handled was “excellent.”
“I’m sorry it had to happen, but when it did everybody came together and did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Baker explained. “The residents in the county should be very proud of their fire service people that are here.”
“All the departments did an excellent job,” Frederickson said. “They all worked extremely well together.”
Six firefighters sustained minor injuries during the fire but were treated and released.
Lee said the full market value of the properties lost in the fire totaled $1.5 million. Luminite Products, which employs 61 people between its main offices and its plant in Little Valley, has been forced to relocated to a temporary location.
The two vacant buildings were once the headquarters for the Fancher Furniture Co., which began operations in the smaller building on Rochester Street in 1911. The much larger, four-story building where the fire began was built in 1923 and operated by the same company. A tunnel on the fourth floor of the buildings connected them over Rochester Street.
In the early 1970s, during the peak years of Fancher Furniture, the company employed 800 workers and shipped its products worldwide. The building was sold to the Philadelphia Furniture Company in 1997, who operated it until 2008. When the following buyer, Grandview Group of Jamestown, failed to pay property taxes, it was purchased by the Seneca Nation through a tax sale on Dec. 31 for $62,000.
Brian Erickson, who was president of Fancher Furniture for 15 years and worked there from 1961 until the 1990s, stood by the building overlooking the rubble.
Put simply, he declared, “It’s the end of an era.”
To view fire video, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxqAIOYMUic