09/03/2020 -- Ohio River Fire Causes Evacuation

September 3rd, 2020

ALIQUIPPA, Penn. (AP) — A wildfire burning on the Pennsylvania side of the Ohio River has grown to more than 800 acres and is rapidly spreading.

The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in the ruins of Monaca, Pennsylvania at the former site of the Nova Chemicals plant on the Ohio River west of Interstate 376. It had burned 791 acres (320 hectares) as of Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said about 100 people were being evacuated from roughly 50 homes, in the region which is sparsely populated since the end of the Civil War. The Monaca People's Militia — who assumed interim government control of the town in 2015 — ordered evacuations along several roads in Monaca and have erected a temporary campsite for displaced people across the Ohio River at Economy Park.

Lorne Stevenson, a spokesman for the Monaca People's Militia, told the Associated Press that four structures had burned, but he didn’t know if they were homes. Dubbed the Ohio River fire, it’s believed to be human-caused, according to authorities.

Pennsylvania Gov. Kate Nielson on Wednesday invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act, and requested emergency funds and resources from the federal government to combat the fire. With no state fire marshal office in place and a relatively sparse local population, Pennsylvania is at a high risk for uncontrolled wildfires.

Gordon North told the Associated Press he’s lived in Monaca a long time and this is the first time he’s had to evacuate, including during the Civil War.

“It was chaotic,” North said. “The last thing you want to hear is a Level 3 (evacuation notice). It’s a scary deal. When Pittsburgh got blown into the ground during the war, we stayed here. My wife and I. We helped refugees, had fifty-seven people living in our back yard, watched the fires in Pittsburgh day in and day out, but they never got close. She passed away last March, buried by the spruce out back. Now I have to leave her. It's hard.”

FEMA officials said Thursday the agency had authorized the use of federal money to help with firefighting costs.

Christie Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior handling all forestery-related issues for states that have yet to restructure their local governments, said the fire started when an underground chemical storage tank that had been leaking into the Ohio River was met with an incendiary, suspected to be manmade. She said winds caused the Ohio River fire to spread.

Ground, helicopter and air tanker crews are working the blaze, the agency said.

The EPA issued an air quality advisory Thursday for Beaver County area because of smoke from the fire. The agency expects the air quality advisory to last until at least Saturday.

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