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Work on bridge, which Bell fire department can't cross because of weight limit, a long way off

Emily Balser
| Monday, March 20, 2017, 11:50 p.m.
The Salina Bridge that connects Bell and Kiski townships over the Kiski River is being considered for repairs or replacement. The bridge, which has a 10-ton weight limit, is shown on Monday, March 20, 2017.
Emily Balser | Tribune-Review
The Salina Bridge that connects Bell and Kiski townships over the Kiski River is being considered for repairs or replacement. The bridge, which has a 10-ton weight limit, is shown on Monday, March 20, 2017.

A bridge that forced firetrucks from Bell Township to take a 6-mile detour to a blaze across the Kiski River over the weekend is on PennDOT's radar to be repaired or replaced — but the work isn't expected to start for years.

Trucks from the Bell Township Fire Department, only a mile away from the fire Saturday in the 100 block of Gartley Street in Kiski Township, were too heavy to use the Salina Bridge that connects the two communities.

The bridge has a 10-ton weight limit, and the Bell Township fire trucks weigh nearly 20 tons.

Bell fire Chief Steve Master said Monday his department could have responded to the fire within minutes if his trucks were able to cross the bridge.

Instead, firefighters had to take an alternate route through Avonmore, which added about 13 minutes to their response time.

Master said he has always worried about the bridge not being able to support the firetrucks.

He said this weekend's fire was the first major incident in which the department's response was affected by its inability to use the bridge.

PennDOT District 12 engineer William Beaumariage said his agency has met with Bell Township officials to discuss their concerns. But he said making changes to the bridge isn't easy.

“That bridge is historic — it's on the national registry of historic structures,” he said. “We can't just go in and replace it.”

The bridge was built in 1906 and rehabilitated in 1978, with smaller repairs completed over the years.

Before changes can be made, several parties have to agree to the plan, including Norfolk Southern Railway, Kiski Township, Bell Township Historical Society, Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Development, Conemaugh Valley Conservancy, Armstrong County Planning and Development Department, Historicbridges.org and the Historic Bridge Foundation.

PennDOT has invited the Pennsylvania Archaeological Council and Westmoreland Archaeological Society to weigh in.

Beaumariage said once those entities agree on a plan, PennDOT will bring it to residents for input.

“We want to make sure the local people's needs are accounted for as much as these consulting parties … that don't have to live with this bridge every day,” Beaumariage said.

Master said although the Bell Township department was the first on scene of the fire, its firefighters only had their smaller truck that carries 250 gallons of water. That wasn't enough to fight the fire.

“If I could have taken the bigger truck across the river, we could have had it knocked down a little quicker,” Master said.

“We were trying to do everything we could.”

The Kiski and North Apollo fire companies responded shortly afterward with their larger trucks.

Firefighters battled the blaze for about an hour before it was under control.

No one was hurt, but the house ended up being destroyed. Attempts to contact owners Glenn and Victoria Nolan on Monday were unsuccessful.

Master said to be able to quickly serve the area, the fire department needs to be able to safely cross the bridge and access those streets and houses.

“We don't want to end up in the river by crossing the bridge,” he said.

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680 or emilybalser@tribweb.com.

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