Spate of fires — and an odd emergency call — take a toll on firefighters

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Forest fire clipOn Monday morning, Chester Fire Chief Matt Wilson told a visitor that he hoped for “significant rain” to relieve the dry conditions that have contributed to a rash of brush and forest fires in recent days.

In addition to working four days on two separate fires on Route 5 in Springfield, the Chester department had illegal burns on Canal Street, Popple Dungeon Road and Main Street as well as brush fires including one on Route 11 South and several mutual aid calls.  After 24 calls in 10 days, “I’m doing a rain dance,” said Wilson, noting that  his crew was worn out, a lament that has been echoed by fire departments throughout the region.

Wilson’s rain dance would pay off on Tuesday, but within two hours of this Monday interview,  Chester trucks would be heading north to Ascutney for a raging motel fire with a brush fire behind it.

Firefighters met with strange situation on Saturday

In what might be the strangest call in a strange and stressful period, on Saturday night, Chester, Proctorsville, Ludlow, Springfield and Phoenix fire companies along with the Chester Ambulance responded to a structure fire on Chauncey Road in Andover.

They were met by a renter who resisted their efforts to put out the fire. The first sign of a problem for those not directly involved was the message from fire dispatchers to approach the scene with emergency lights, but no sirens for the safety of firefighters.

According to Wilson, Chester units arrived to find a fully involved basement fire that was going into the first floor, but no smoke or flames appearing outside the house. Wilson said that the intense heat burst basement pipes,  which put out the fire and sent a plume of steam up the stairwell to at least temporarily douse the fire on the first floor.

Meanwhile, a “nose to nose” confrontation between the occupant and a Chester fire captain was taking place outside. State Police arrived to convince the man to allow firefighters to enter the house, where they found the fire still active with hot coals on the first floor, a cabinet on fire and extremely high carbon monoxide levels. Firefighters told the occupant that the fire could reignite and that the CO levels would kill him if he stay in the house.

The occupant of the house was upset at the response time of the firefighters. Shaking his head, Wilson recounted that after days of multiple fires, he had been hosting a cookout for his firefighters and their families at his house less than a mile from the fire station. “When we got the tone, everyone left for the station at once and we were on the road in three minutes,” said Wilson. “You can’t get a better response than that.”

Wilson said the responders tried everything to calm the situation. In addition to silencing sirens, they took the unprecedented step of shutting off all their emergency lights at the scene and holding mutual aid equipment out of sight up the hill. Finally, the man demanded that the firefighters leave the property.

Normally, when a building is on fire, the department takes charge of the scene and has the power to remove inhabitants. But because the fire was contained inside the house and not sending flames and smoke into the air Wilson said he was not certain about his options. On Monday, however, the State’s Attorney’s office told Wilson that they would have stood behind his call on whether the fire was likely to reignite and become an environmental problem.

“In all my time with the fire department, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Wilson.


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