Firefighters accused of arson? Naw, it was just a training exercise..

By:Marcia Miller, Telegraph Staff Writer June 19, 2003


The house blazed with intense heat as firefighters sat on overturned plastic five-gallon buckets and sprayed a little water on the nearby trees or the edges of the fire to keep it from spreading.
Before accusations of gross negligence are filed against the Starke Fire Department (SFD) and Division of Forestry (DOF), those who viewed the scene should be aware that the blaze was both part of a training exercise and a community improvement effort. It removed an abandoned and run-down building while providing firefighters with hands-on, true-to-life training.

Two buildings were actually set afire and burned to the ground June 12 in Starke during the exercise. The "Peanut Butter Disco Club" - a building on SR-16 near the railroad tracks in Starke that served as a fruit stand many years ago, but which has been abandoned and empty for a long time - and an abandoned house off North Thompson Street (in the area behind Powell's) were both burned and attended by firefighters on that morning.

Both buildings had been the subject of code enforcement complaints, but both were voluntarily turned over for burning by the owners.

Starke Fire Chief Dywane Hardee said abandoned buildings can be burned to the ground by SFD under certain circumstances. That process leaves the owner to clear away the debris - which is much easier and less expensive after the building has burned.

However, before a building can be set afire and burned down in this manner, there are a number of hoops that have to be jumped through. Hardee said the Department of Environmental Protection has to give a permit for the process and must first be satisfied that environmentally dangerous items like asbestos shingles, furnishings with vinyl coatings and furniture with certain types of stuffing have been removed from the building prior to burning.

If all the requirements are satisfied, DEP eventually provides a permit with a two-week window of opportunity. If anything happens to delay the burning beyond that two-week time period, the process must begin again.


Steps must also be taken to prove that the person giving permission to burn the building is the legal owner of the property. The owner then gives SFD a "letter of authority" that gives them permission to burn the building and releases the department from responsibility should nearby trees or shrubbery be damaged in the process.


Hardee said one of the first steps SFD takes, of course, is looking at the property and making certain that burning the abandoned building will not endanger neighboring properties or things like power lines, etc.


After those steps have all been taken, DOF must also issue a permit for the burning exercise. DOF, on the day of the proposed burn, looks at the weather conditions and at how dry the surrounding vegetation is before giving the go-ahead to the exercise.


On June 12, SFD and DOF executed a well-thought-out plan that included rerouting traffic on nearby roadways (including SR-16), laying out a system of hoses using both hydrants and tanker vehicles, planning which firefighters would take care of which tasks, etc.


Hardee said firefighters do not normally have the luxury of so carefully planning an attack on a fire, but every step possible was taken to ensure that each blaze was carefully controlled.


Preparations on the first burn began about an hour before any blaze was started. Preparations on the second blaze began even before the first had been completely put to rest. Some of the firefighters left the first blaze to make preparations on the second. Both exercises had ended by approximately 2 p.m.


The blazes were ignited by Firefighter David Young, who was the designated "arsonist" for the exercise, each time with a flare.


The pile of debris that was ignited in the first building caught fairly easily. The second building had been missing a roof for quite some time, however, and took a great deal of effort to ignite. Everything inside the building had been drenched in recent rainstorms, and although the debris had dried out to some extent, it was still wet.


After a number of tries at igniting the debris, one observer commented, "These guys are great at putting out a fire, but they sure as heck can't start one." Of course, being good at starting fires is not exactly an item most fire chiefs want to see on a firefighter's job application.


For more information on having abandoned buildings burned, contact SFD at 904-964-7116.


©Bradford County Telegraph 2003