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Firefighters battle flames, summer swelter in Allegheny Township

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By Jodi Weigand

Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 3:12 p.m.

In near 90-degree heat, firefighters from nine companies contended with a fast-moving garage fire in Allegheny Township fueled by drums of used heating oil and other flammable liquids being stored there along with vehicles and auto parts.

The large, two-story garage at 516 McGeary Hollow Road was destroyed.

No one was injured.

The fire broke out at about 2:10 p.m. Flames were through the roof by the time crews arrived, according to Markle fire Chief Keith Wilhelm. Firefighters were still dousing hot spots more than two hours later.

There were at least four explosions while crews were battling the blaze, Wilhelm said.

It appeared that the fire started on the second floor and burned down to ground level, he said.

A state police fire marshal is investigating.

Westmoreland County's Hazardous Materials Response Team was called to clean up about 165 gallons of heating oil that leaked from three 55-gallon drums in the garage.

The fire companies dug containment ditches, Wilhelm said. But the hazmat team was needed to do a full cleanup and assess the scene due to the nature of the chemicals inside the garage, located next to a small creek.

“There were vehicle cylinders, magnesium blocks from cars, acetylene, gas tanks on vehicles,” Wilhelm said. “Anything that you can imagine, it was in there.”

Officials said it appeared that the garage was used to restore cars. There was a 1957 Chevy inside, Wilhelm said. An older model Ford truck sitting outside was heavily burned.

Fire departments had to haul water to the site, which hampered their ability to quickly knock down the flames, said Robert Hazlet, a firefighter with the Markle and Lower Burrell Fire Company 3.

The nearest hydrant to the rural home is about 2 miles away in each direction.

Tanker trucks hauled water from the intersections of Melwood Road and Route 356 and White Cloud Road and the Bonfire Shortcut.

Contending with heat

Hazlet puts it simply: “The heat is the worst thing.”

With no breeze, hot air from idling fire trucks hung in the humid air. It gave firefighters little relief after they ended their shift battling the blaze — which Hazlet estimated was at least 5,000 degrees.

As weary firefighters headed away from the flames, they immediately removed their heavy jackets and dumped bottles of water over their heads before taking a sip.

Lower Kiski Emergency Medical Services crews did what they could to assist.

In addition to dozens of bottles of water, they handed out freeze pops. Closer to the fire scene, they set up a small misting fan that pulled water from a blue cooler.

Firefighters rotate out once they go through two self-contained breathing apparatus packs, Hazlet said.

“After that, there's nothing left in your body,” he said.

Lower Kiski responded with its medical evacuation rehab vehicle, a bus-sized unit equipped with air conditioning, refreshments and medical equipment to help firefighters hydrate and cool off between shifts. The EMTs also checked their vital signs.

“Normally, we don't come out, but with this high heat and humidity, we can cycle guys out faster,” said Peter Frejkowski, chief of Lower Kiski EMS. “Our goal is to minimize the need for evaluation at the hospital.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com. Braden Ashe contributed.

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