Strong wind gusts hampered the efforts of firefighters to control a 5-alarm fire at a motel in Berks County.
Crews were dispatched shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday to Klein's Motel in the 4800 block of the 5th Street Highway in Muhlenberg Township.
The first firefighters to arrive on the scene found heavy fire at the motel.
Additional alarms were soon struck to summon additional manpower to the scene as firefighters battled wind-driven flames and smoke.
Firefighters from as far away as Fleetwood and Exeter Township responded to the scene, working more than 2-1/2 hours to bring the fire under control.
While flames spared much of the motel's guest area, the fire badly damaged or destroyed the office and maintenance areas of the motel and the owner's home, where he lived with his wife and three children, officials said.
The fire also spread to a neighboring metal-supply business as thick, black smoke forced officials to close the 5th Street Highway to traffic.
Smoke is all people could see for miles around the scene.
"The longer we sat there, the more smoke and everything was coming," said witness David Andreas.
Witnesses said the black smoke was so thick you could not even see across the street, causing drivers to stop dead in their tracks.
"The smoke, it is choking. One minute it is blowing one way, the next minute it blows the next. You cannot see in front of your face," said witness Rich Weeks.
But behind that cloud of smoke were massive flames shooting high into the air.
"Lots of flames. They were up over the telephone polls," said witness Melissa Frantz.
The biggest battle for crews was the heavy wind gusts that only added fuel to the fire and helped it spread from the motel to the neighboring metal supply business.
"It is crazy. I mean the flames are huge. There are people all over the place," said witness Morgan Huseman.
"I am just scared for the people around here. Look at the smoke. It is the biggest fire I have ever seen," said witness Joan Andreas.
"I feel bad for the people that are going to lose their houses. I hope they can find some help," said Huseman.
The Berks County chapter of the American Red Cross Berks opened a shelter to house those displaced by the motel fire.
The shelter is located at the YMCA of Reading, 631 Washington St, and opened at 6 p.m.
The Red Cross said it expects approximately 25 to 30 people to stay overnight at the shelter. Individuals will be provided with cots, comfort kits and meals.
The Red Cross said it will work with local officials for longer term housing.
In addition to the 5th Street Highway being closed, Met-Ed crews had to cut the power supply to several area businesses, leaving a normally busy highway looking like a ghost town.
One firefighter was treated at the scene for minor injuries.