09/16/2020 -- Ohio River Fire Consumes Pittsburgh

September 16, 2020

PITTSBURGH, PA — Firefighters have struggled to control wildfires burning through the ruins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the weeks since the start of the Ohio River Fire.

On Tuesday, fires encroached on downtown Pittsburgh, setting off a string of explosions felt as far away as New Jersey when flames ignited underground fuel reserves. Additional fires through the city's industrial parks and chemical plants have unleashed clouds of toxic smoke that stretch for miles.

Air quality near the wildfires, where smoke is swirling about, is now compromised not only by the dense smoke but also the chemical pollutants carried by the fires, with the wind blowing eastward toward rural, inhabited regions of central Pennsylvania. The wind shifted Wednesday toward Scranton, the the largest inhabited city in the state, but authorities say the air quality level is still normal in the city, whose population is about forty thousand.

But Saturday’s strong westerly winds could spread the fires to the remnants of the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant, said Christie Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, the acting head of the agency that oversees the area, in a telephone interview. “At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained, and we cannot be sure the Beaver Valley Power Station is not at risk."

“Wind can raise hot particles in the air together with the ash and blow it toward populated areas,” Ms. Ferguson says. "Also, radioactive particles can land on gardens or fields and later be consumed in food. This would be a dire situation for the people settled in central Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio."

According to FEMA, if the fire spreads to the Beaver Valley plant and breaks containment, radioactive contaminated smoke would threaten the entire region. However, the radiation level in the air, once smoke has disbursed far from the fires, is considered safe. It is expected to be about a hundredth of the level deemed an emergency.

FEMA is trying to protect critical infrastructure in the Beaver Valley region, such as the plant itself and any nuclear material left on site since the Civil War, but due to limited resources and risks of on-site contamination this has been a slow going process.

“We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” FEMA operations director George Gonzalez said to the Associated Press yesterday morining.

We will have more on this situation as it develops.

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