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Chief: Fire at former Middletown Paperboard building 'catastrophic'

Flames rage from morning into night
Middletown fire warehouse.jpg
Middletown paperboard fire.jpg
Posted at 10:08 AM, Jan 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-02 10:13:19-05

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — A fire that raged from morning to night caused "catastrophic" damage at a long-abandoned warehouse and will require firefighters to be on the scene for "the rest of the week," Fire Chief Paul Lolli said.

Thick, black smoke poured from the former Middletown Paperboard building Wednesday afternoon, and flames continued into the night. The fire, which started about 6:40 a.m., seemed to be dying down at midday but hotspots reignited around noon and disrupted life for residents and motorists.

Neighbors said their power was turned off at 8 a.m and homes were blocked off. Verity Parkway had to be closed because fire damage caused debris to fall on the roadway.

Smoke from the fire was visible from miles away, and people who gathered near Verity Parkway and Girard Avenue to watch said they could feel the heat from the flames while standing across the street.

“I'm being told you can see it out by Americana,” said Earl Hayes of Middletown. “We all grew up around this thing. It’s been closed for many years. We’re sad to see it go like this. It kind of looks like it might be a total loss.”

Sylvia Lopez of Miami Township said she was worried for neighbors breathing the thick smoke.

“The neighbors, I would probably be concerned, because you don’t know what it’s going to land all over, them inhaling that stuff, or even getting into their homes,” Lopez said.

The fire was so extensive even the interior walls collapsed, and firefighters took a defensive position outside the building rather than take any risk.

“This building is unoccupied, it’s vacant, it’s in various stages of collapse. So, it just wasn’t worth risking anybody’s life to enter the building,” Lolli said.

The cause has not been determined, but the building has caught fire numerous times over the years due to storage and squatters. It's the second major fire there in three years.

“We’ve had several fires in this building since it’s been unoccupied in the mid-1990s, and it’s varied from storage operations that may have been going on here to arson," Lolli said.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 6,000 firefighters are injured each year working in abandoned buildings. So Middletown has been taking action to make those buildings - and firefighters' jobs - safer, the chief said.

"Middletown has gotten very aggressive in the last couple years of getting vacant, unoccupied buildings like this better secured or torn down if that’s the only thing left to do," Lolli said. "And, as you can see, we’re still trying to get that accomplished."

Middletown taking steps to make abandoned buildings safer for firefighters

In April, the city council passed an ordinance requiring all vacant buildings be registered with the city to ensure upkeep and maintenance. That will also help first responders prepare for what they might encounter, Lolli said.

"It'll pop up on the first engine company's screen," Lolli said. "The officer will see that it might be a vacant, unoccupied building and what degree of preplanning has gone into it, where we know what the state of the structure of the building is."

The new ordinance, which takes effect in 30 days, affects buildings and properties within the Urban Core Central zoning district that encompasses downtown Middletown.

The Paperboard building was most recently owned by BP Logan Corporation, city officials said. The Butler County auditor foreclosed on the property in October 2018. The Butler County Prosecutor’s Office requested the property be forfeited to the state on Nov. 22, 2019, after two failed attempts to sell it.

When the building is safe to enter, the city’s Building Inspection Division will evaluate it for safety.