A fire that swept through the building housing the former Wolfe’s on the Square in Williamsport on Monday had the potential to spread to any building along the town’s historic square at the intersection of Potomac and Conococheague streets, Williamsport Volunteer Fire and EMS Chief William Ball said Tuesday.
Ball said fire can spread easily in a building as old as the Civil War-era structure.
“The fire could’ve spread to either side of the street,” he said. “Some of these buildings are interconnected, and when heat transfers it could go anywhere.”
The three-story building, which had apartments and a liquor and convenience store, was built around 1800 and has operated as a hotel, a tavern and apartment complex. In addition to being called Wolfe’s on the Square, it has been taverns and hotels such as the Ensminger, the Taylor, the Prosser, and the Wabash.
The five-alarm fire, which was caused by a mechanical failure and resulted in an estimated $500,000 in damages, could have spread because of its proximity to other structures, the design and material in the building, or by affecting the power lines in the area, Williamsport Volunteer Fire and EMS Assistant Chief Mark Kopp said.
“When you get a heavy fire like that, it could knock down a power line, causing a secondary fire,” Kopp said. “The fire could’ve easily taken a good portion of the town.”
The fire hazards presented by buildings built close together hark back to the days before municipalities had restrictions on proximity.
The risk in those areas cannot be changed unless the buildings undergo major rehabilitation projects involving such safety measures as the installation of sprinkler systems, Ball said.
“The town has a lot of history, so we need to do our best to preserve our history,” he said. “We have buildings that date back to the Civil War.”
Educating firefighters about the town and the buildings as well as making sure that people who own the buildings take responsibility for them are important ways to protect them, Ball said.
Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said the town is always willing to work with the fire department to determine what it needs.
On Monday, firefighters had trouble removing the cap from one of the hydrants.
“Once they do their evaluation of this fire, if there’s any steps that we need to take, I’m sure the mayor and council will take those steps,” he said.
As cleanup from the fire continued Tuesday, local business workers on the square talked about Monday’s blaze.
Aziz Overdi, a chef at Potomac Family Restaurant, which is scheduled to open on the northeast corner of the square around Valentine’s Day, said he was worried the fire would spread to his building.
“After they shut the power off, I felt fine,” Overdi, 57, of Williamsport, said. “The firefighters did a good job.”
On the southwest corner of the square, the possibility of the fire spreading did not hit Alan Redding, who works at Desert Rose Cafe.
Redding, 43, of Williamsport, said he was on his way to open the cafe when he saw the fire around 7:55 a.m.
“I was walking down from my house, and I stood watching in amazement,” he said. “There were so many firefighters from so many different areas that they had everything under control. I had no concerns or worries.”
Fire companies from Maryland and West Virginia were called to the scene, with one of the companies coming from Montgomery County (Md.). It took firefighters nearly five hours to get the fire under control.