Investigation continues: Fire at abandoned Pittsfield warehouse likely set — intentionally or accidentally
Photo Gallery | J B Paper Co. mill fire, day 2
PITTSFIELD — A massive fire that gutted a former paper warehouse on Monday apparently was set — either intentionally or accidently, fire officials said.
City firefighters continued pouring water into the still-smoldering J.B. Paper Co. building on Elmvale Place on Tuesday, though no flames were visible.
A precise cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but Pittsfield Deputy Fire Chief Daniel Garner said preliminary information suggests it was set. He said the long-abandoned building was no longer connected to electricity.
"Without going too far into it, we can rule out electrical," he said.
"It's either accidental by a squatter or trespasser... or it's a malicious intent to start a fire with an open flame," said Garner. "It's either an accidental arson, or it's arson."
No firefighters were injured in the fire, which was first reported about 8:09 p.m., though Garner said it could have been smoldering for hours before becoming visible, due to the building being set back a fair distance from Wahconah Street.
"It could have started sometime after 7 p.m.; it could have been a cigarette smoldering since 5 p.m. last evening," Garner said. "It was heavy fire when we got here, which means it was burning for quite some time."
The fire was brought under control sometime before midnight, he said.
The building's roof collapsed on to itself and the crumbled remains of one of the exterior walls could be clearly seen from Elmvale Place. Charred and splintered wooden beams and twisted metal were visible through that gap.
Some witnesses of the fire returned Tuesday morning to see the fire's aftermath.
Fred Streit said he saw the smoke and the sky filled with an orange glow from the flames.
"The whole thing was burning really fast," he said.
"It's pretty scary when you come out here and hear all the explosions ... you don't know what's going on."
"I just hope nobody was hurt," he said. "That's the main thing."
Jill Boutin also heard noises she thought might be explosions from within the building as it was consumed by flame.
She said she's only known the building as being abandoned and can't remember a time when it was operating.
A woman who lives in the nearby Dower Square apartment complex said she was alerted about the fire via text and could see the building ablaze through her window.
She said the heat was intense enough to feel it from the backyard of one of the buildings.
Garner drew a distinction between the destroyed building being "vacant" and "abandoned," noting a vacant building would still have some level of maintenance and upkeep performed upon it.
"This is a condemned, abandoned building," he said. "A neglected building."
The building and its location presented some specific challenges to the firefighters, Garner said.
"Buildings are at their most dangerous for fire personnel and the general public when they're being constructed, or they're being demolished or when they're abandoned," he said.
Garner said there were hazards inside the building, including unstable walls and floors.
He said the building is suspected of having been a haven for squatters and other trespassers, but it's unclear if anyone fitting that description may be responsible for starting the fire.
"Nobody has any right to be here, other than the property owner and they were nowhere near this place," Garner said. "It's either accidental by a squatter or trespasser ... or it's a malicious intent to start a fire with an open flame."
Another difficulty in getting the fire under control was immediate access to water.
Garner said the department would normally draft water from the nearby Housatonic River, but a lack of access and an exceptionally low water level made that impossible.
Garner said Pittsfield's Water Department was able to increase the water volume and pressure to the Wahconah Street area to supply firefighting water and tanker trucks helped shuttle in water to help supply the hoses.
Garner said a full contingent of city firefighters were aided by personnel from Adams, Lanesborough, Lee and Dalton.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer was at the scene Tuesday morning and thanked all of the firefighters from the city and neighboring towns for their work.
"I want to commend our Fire Department and our neighbors for doing excellent work last night," she said. "As far as I know at this point there have been no injuries to any firefighters. Which is obviously very important to me that our men and women in public safety are safe."
"Our Fire Department has known this building has been vacant and would be a challenge if a fire ever broke out and they have had specific plans in place for a number of years on what they would do if they were called out to this location," she said.
Garner said the building was already too dangerous to enter when firefighters first arrived.
Fire fighters were able to conduct a walk-through late Tuesday afternoon, but said the investigation was ongoing.
Garner said the department had done a certain amount of "pre-planning," in regards to the building, including checking access routes and what type of utility service it had.
"Just so we can be better prepared on a building's worst day," he said.
Garner said, because the building had been used in paper production, there were concerns about leftover chemicals that may have been used in that process.
"Other than what was soaked in the floorboard itself, there were no hazardous materials on the property," Garner said, estimating the building had been abandoned for a decade or more.
Garner said he had early reports the building was not insured.
The Pittsfield Assessor's Office lists the owner of 70 Elmvale Place as BBM Realty Co. and Gerald Binder of New Jersey.
Attempts to contact BBM and Binder were unsuccessful.
The state Fire Marshal's Office is investigating, but any new information was not immediately available Tuesday afternoon.
Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.