Errant sparks blamed for fire at Steuben auto garage

Sean I. Mills
Staff writer
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Posted 2/7/19

TOWN OF STEUBEN — Errant sparks have been blamed for a large fire that destroyed three workshops at Tolpa’s Auto Parts on French Road Wednesday afternoon. Fire officials said no one was …

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Errant sparks blamed for fire at Steuben auto garage

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TOWN OF STEUBEN — Errant sparks have been blamed for a large fire that destroyed three workshops at Tolpa’s Auto Parts on French Road Wednesday afternoon. Fire officials said no one was seriously injured.

Remsen Fire Chief Scott Kahl said employees were cutting up a motor vehicle inside one of the shops when some sparks ignited a flammable material at about 1:41 p.m. Kahl said the employees tried to fight the fire on their own at first with fire extinguishers, but eventually they had to flee the building.

“They were cutting a piece of a car and sparks flew across the room” and ignited a flammable gas, the chief stated. He noted that there were cameras inside the shop and they recorded the ignition. “You can see the fireball light up,” the chief said.

“They had a couple of fire extinguishers on it in about 10 to 20 seconds, but it was still too much, even for the extinguishers,” Kahl said.

One employee was trapped behind the flames, the chief said, and the other employees were able to clear the floor of fire enough so that the trapped man was able to run to safety. All the employees escaped without injury. “All three buildings were fully involved” on arrival, Kahl stated. “Heavy smoke, heavy flames. They’re full of oil, they’re full of gas...they’re full of everything that’s flammable.”

Kahl said the three workshops had been connected in one way or another with various additions and expansions over the years. The flames spread across all three workshops.

Seven volunteer departments were dispatched to the scene, with several more on standby. The volunteers fought through freezing rain and very icy conditions to battle the blaze.

Authorities said multiple hose lines were trained on the fire, including use of the Stittville aerial truck. Water had to be tankered to the scene from several fill sites. Tolpa’s Auto Parts is located off French Road, southwest of Alder Creek. The shop is located back off the roadway up a hill, and authorities said the driveway quickly became covered in solid ice from both the freezing rain and the run-off from fighting the fire.

“Rain helps with the fire, but the ice, in the beginning, it was like an ice skating rink up there,” the chief stated. Several firefighters, and even one member of the Tolpa family, slipped and fell on the ice, the chief said, but no one was seriously injured. One firefighter was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

The Town of Steuben brought a dirt truck to the scene to make the ice passable for firefighters.

Crews blasted the fire with water until the flames were declared under control at about 4:49 p.m. Chief Kahl said the workshops were mostly made of metal, which provided its own problems.

He said once the wood frames burned out, the metal roofs and sides collapsed inward.

The chief said the property is fully insured and the Tolpa family plans to rebuild. They have been in business since 1987.

The Remsen, Barneveld, Forestport, Boonville, Stittville, Poland and Woodgate fire departments responded to the scene, with Floyd, Holland Patent and Otter Lake on standby.

“Obviously, metal doesn’t burn,” the chief said. “It’s like a great big umbrella, as far as the water goes.” Once the fire was knocked down, the chief said he gave his volunteers a bit of a break to warm up. Tolpa’s Auto Parts provided food and hot beverages, as did several other businesses in the area. Tolpa’s also contracted an excavator to come to the scene to start digging through the metal debris to continue dousing hot spots.

Chief Kahl said the firefight and clean up was eventually wrapped by 6 p.m..

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