Auto Zone

Firefighters and emergency personnel worked at the scene of a blaze Sept. 21 at the Auto Zone store on Oakland Avenue in White Township.

Flames early today let loose hundreds of gallons of motor oil and brake fluids, filled a White Township auto parts and supply store with “milk chocolate smoke all the way to the floor,” a fire official said, and generated heat so intense that it cracked the concrete block walls in several places.

Damage at the Auto Zone store along Oakland Avenue could easily exceed $2 million, including $1.5 million of spoiled inventory alone, said Assistant Chief Ron Moreau of the Indiana Fire Department.

No injuries were reported among the first responders at the scene.

A fire marshal has been summoned to try to pinpoint the cause of the fire, a standard procedure for a fire of that extent, the chief said. It was reported to the Indiana County 911 center about 4:25 a.m.

Moreau said the flames got through the flat rubber roof of the building before crews arrived. It started in the warehouse area at the left rear corner of the store, from the perspective of someone on the street, Moreau said, and fire started spreading along the edges of the roof.

“We had to peel the rubber roof back to get at the fire, which fortunately went pretty smoothly,” Moreau said. Battling the fire from above required three aerial trucks. Fighting it from the floor took plenty of fresh air tanks. Indiana fire company’s help came from Coral-Graceton, Homer City, Black Lick, Cherryhill Township and Creekside fire departments.

“Lots of help. Great mutual aid — that means everything,” Moreau said.

Firefighters tapped two hydrants, on Lilac Street in the Westgate Apartments complex and near Wendy’s restaurant northeast of the burning car parts shop on Oakland Avenue. Flames and smoke had disappeared by 6:30 a.m.; busy Oakland Avenue had been blocked at Lilac Street and Rustic Lodge Road, and was reopened to traffic between 7 and 7:30 a.m.

The blaze was fed by Auto Zone’s burgeoning stock of hydrocarbon products.

Those that didn’t burn outright melted, covering the floors with every manner of petroleum-based liquid that it takes to run a vehicle except for gasoline.

The stock that didn’t burn or melt, from the docks to the front showroom, ended up coated in black soot or was soaked with water.

“When we went in the front door, the smoke was down to the floor,” Moreau said. “The whole store, top to bottom, left to right, front to back, was full of smoke and heat. So we have a major loss here.

“The structure has two major cracks in the back. … The heat cracked the structure in multiple places along the concrete joints,” Moreau said. “That’s unfortunate. It will be a work in progress for them for several months.”

The fire department will be busy for a long time, too.

Lots of firefighters’ jumpsuits are oil stained. Oils covered the hoses.

But nothing posed an explosion risk, Moreau said.

And the Auto Zone inventory posed little environmental threat, either in quantity or kind of products kept on the shelves, according to John Pividori of Indiana County Emergency Management Agency.

“Our rapid intervention team arrived and assisted the Indiana company in putting down some pads,” Pividori said. “They had already come forward and started that operation.

“Some guys tracked some of the stuff outside, but nothing appeared to reach any of the drains.”

Auto Zone restoration work, Pividori said, would require some mitigation efforts to head of any environmental risk during cleanup. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection would monitor that effort.

Auto Zone opened in late 2018, and is the newest of three major auto supply chain stores on a short stretch of Oakland Avenue.

The company also operates a store on Route 22 in the Blairsville area.

Auto Zone’s Indiana store phone system hadn’t been set to forward calls to local managers this morning, and the corporate office didn’t respond to an online request for comment on the impact on employees and customers.

Local store management people were on site early during firefighting operations, Moreau said. Among their complications was handling a tractor-trailer full of stock that pulled up to the scene for a scheduled delivery.

“They’re going to be out of business for a while,” Moreau said. “So I’d say they sent that one back home.”

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.