One year later: Chief calls huge Middletown Paperboard blaze a ‘career fire.’ What comes next?

Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF
Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

A Middletown firefighter was on his way into work about 6:40 a.m. a year ago today when he noticed smoke at the vacant Middletown Paperboard building. A cyclist flagged him down to report the fire.

The smoke from the blaze was visible for miles that cold winter morning. Witnesses said they could feel the heat of the burning building from across the street. Debris from collapsing walls fell on streets, requiring the closure of that portion of Verity Parkway for days.

That New Year’s Day blaze began a weeklong fight against fire and continuing efforts by city officials to determine what’s next for the facility that was large empty warehouse space before it was destroyed.

Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli reflected later that “in terms of length of time (putting the fire out) and resources used, it was a career fire. It took a good week to put out.”

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In his 31 years in the fire service, Lolli said, “we’ve had some big fires over the years at AK (Steel) and the Recker (Custom Woodworks) fire. But the amount of resources used, this pretty much was a career big one.”

Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF
Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Lolli said officials decided it was too dangerous to send in firefighters with hoses to attack the fire and to search for any people possibly in the building.

Initially, two people were reported in the 400,000- to 600,000-square-foot building, and three others escaped. The remaining people were later found.

The fire started when a homeless man living inside the building built a fire to stay warm. He left to get more wood for the fire, but upon his return, the fire had spread to his bedding, he later told police. The man fled the scene with the others and because he was wanted on several arrest warrants.

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On Jan. 2, police arrested Joshua Lamb, 36, on charges of arson, a fourth-degree felony, and aggravated arson, a second-degree felony, for starting the fire.

Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF
Debris remains Wednesday, Dec.. 30, 2020 nearly a year after the former Middletown Paperboard complex was destroyed by fire. Firefighters from multiple departments battled the fire that started on January 1, 2020. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

In October, Lamb was sentenced to five years of community control after pleading guilty to arson in September. The aggravated arson charge was dismissed.

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Firefighters worked with crews from Vickers Demolition to knock down walls to enable firefighters to put down the fire. As heavy equipment operators took down a wall or part of the roof, more heat and flames were exposed and extinguished by firefighters with hand lines or from aerial fire trucks.

“I can’t say thank you enough to Vickers,” he said. “Without Vickers, we might have been there another month.”

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Middletown firefighters received mutual aid from Franklin, Monroe and Liberty Twp. Middletown also called in off-duty fire crews to assist. Officials said there were as many as 70 to 90 firefighters on the scene.

Lolli said it was first time the fire department used a drone to determine where to deploy resources and equipment. Fire crews searched nearby neighborhoods to check for any burning embers coming from the fire scene.

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Susan Cohen, the city administrative services director who was acting city manager at the time, said the site was recently fenced to try to keep out the homeless and trespassers.

“Right now, we’re looking for grants for environmental remediation,” she said. “We’re updating the environmental reports to make sure it’s an accurate depiction of what’s there and what’s remediated.”

Cohen said the demolition estimates range from $1.5 million to $2 million, none of which is budgeted for 2021.

She said she would like to see it become a strategic gateway. One future use could be mixed use as part of the proposed Oakland neighborhood revitalization.

“We realize what a great asset it could be,” she said. “We’re optimistic in seeing what the possibilities for future development are.”

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