Bottle rockets start brush fires in Chester: mischief or arson?

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Chester fire trucks on the hill near the Popple Dungeon brush fire

Chester fire trucks on the hill near the Popple Dungeon brush fire. Photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click any photo to launch gallery.

Firefighters from Chester and Proctorsville responded to, and quickly put out, a brush fire on Popple Dungeon Road Monday afternoon. But in a worrying development, it was the third such fire in one week and the second in one day.

“We believe we have someone who is setting fires,” said Chester Fire Chief Matt Wilson, who is also a Chester Police detective. “So far we’ve been lucky, but we need to stop them,” said Wilson, noting that vigilance, early alarms and quick action have kept the fires from spreading to structures.  Police and fire officials are asking the public for help.

A firefighter (in yellow) works the side of the hill

A firefighter — in yellow –works the side of the hill.

According to Wilson, on Tuesday Nov. 10 and then again on Monday Nov. 16, brush fires were ignited by large bottle rockets that may have been fired from a vehicle. Last Tuesday’s fire on Church Street was held at bay by a homeowner with a garden hose until firefighters could get there and Monday’s earlier blaze, on Grafton Road, was quickly put down. But by the time the Chester firefighters returned to their station, they were called out for another brush fire on a hill behind the 2500-block of Popple Dungeon Road about three miles from the first fire.

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Three large bottle rockets. Two found at the scene of fires and one found at Popple Dungeon and Stage Roads.

Excavation contractors working behind a seasonal cabin above Popple Dungeon Road noticed smoke at about 2:40 p.m. and thought that a neighbor down the hill had started a fire. “When the smoke got intense,” said Wilson, “they checked it out and found flames spreading fast toward the cabin.”

According to Wilson, employees of Northeast Excavating brought a machine around to dig a firebreak that kept the fast moving flames from spreading to the cabin, while one ran to a nearby house where the occupant called 911.  On the site, Chester Fire Capt. Ben Whalen estimated the area of the fire to be approximately the size of a football field and said that the blaze was worked by about 15 to 20 firefighters. The Fire Department estimates that the cost of fighting the Popple Dungeon fire to be $1,600. That does not include the costs incurred by Proctorsville or by the Bellows Falls department, which covered the Chester station.

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State fire investigator Steve Otis, left, and Chester fire chief Matt Wilson comb the scene of Monday’s brush fire.

On Tuesday, Wilson and State Police fire investigator Steve Otis combed the Popple Dungeon hillside looking for another rocket.

Police said that they have eyewitness reports from the incidents and are looking for a greenish blue Subaru Legacy type of vehicle. Police say it is a sedan, set low with a loud exhaust and steel wheels. It may have a fin in the back.

If you have any information regarding the car or any of these brush fires, call Det. Matt Wilson at the Chester Police Department at 802-875-2035. The Chester Fire Department asks that the citizen who approached a firefighter with information during the Popple Dungeon fire on Monday contact either the fire department or the police.

Otis and Wilson asked that the public be especially vigilant for signs of fire and to remember that the current dry, windy conditions make outdoor burning especially dangerous. Consult the Chester Fire Warden at 802-875-2173 before burning.

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