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County officials, firemen stress fire safety

“When we talk about the Christmas spirit and love and hope and caring, all we’ve got to do is look at our volunteers in the fire departments and rescue squads. We are a very fortunate county, and they are a gift to all of us.”
—Charles Culley

by Larry S. Chowning

Many calendar years are remembered by natural events that occurred in that year. Some recall with clarity the August Storm of 1933, the Winter Freeze of 1976, and Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

In Middlesex, the fall of 2008 will be remembered for its devastating fires. The county has experienced nine structure fires since September 16. Firefighters throughout the county are describing this string of fires—seven houses and two commercial buildings—as “unprecedented.”

The fires also concern the Middlesex County Board of Supervisors. On Dec. 16, the board requested all citizens to take “every precaution necessary” to protect their homes and businesses from fires.
Supervisor Robert Crump said he feels the public needs to be made more aware of what can be done to keep their property safe.

Middlesex County Administrator Charles Culley said his office and fire officials are trying to make people aware of fire dangers, and to have their furnaces, chimneys and other possible fire sources checked.

“The devastating impact of having your house or business catch on fire is far reaching,” said Culley. “We’ve had nine major structure fires and we would like for fire safety in the home to become a top priority.
“The number of fires since September is pretty much unprecedented,” said Culley. “When I talk with local firemen who have been around for a long time, none of them can remember a time when they have fought so many fires.”
Safety Steps
Joe Moschetti, assistant chief of the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department of Urbanna, said homeowners need to have their chimneys cleaned and furnaces serviced at the start of the winter season. 

He said portable heating units, cooking materials and cigarettes are the main causes of house fires throughout the country. “There shouldn’t be anything within three feet of any type of portable heater,” he said. “I went into a house this week that had things up against a hot portable heater.  That’s just asking for trouble.”

Moschetti also said that most fires start in the kitchen, and one mistake many people make is trying to put the fire
out themselves. “If it’s something you can manage with a fire extinguisher, that’s one thing, but it only takes three minutes for a house fire to multiply 12 times the size of what it was when it started.

“Call 911 as soon as you see a problem,” he said. “We are all volunteer fire departments in Middlesex and have to drive to stations to get to the fire trucks. Every minute is critical.

“Our response time to the fire in Urbanna on Howard Street and Rappahannock Avenue (on November 24) was eight minutes,” said Moschetti. “By the time we got to the scene the house was totally engulfed. By then there was very little we could do to save the home. How much time passes when a fire is discovered and a call for help is made often determines what can be saved and what can’t, and how far a fire spreads.”

Moschetti said electrical power strips and extension cords also can create fire dangers. If lights dim when one turns on an electrical appliance, then that might be a sign of electrical problems. If sockets get hot when things are plugged in, or breakers trip regularly due to over loading, or if electrical or extension cords feel hot when in use—an electrician needs to be consulted.

The most important thing for every household is to have working smoke detectors located in sleeping areas and attics, said Moschetti. “Batteries need to be checked every so often to make sure smoke detectors are working properly.”

He also recommends having carbon monoxide detectors in homes. “Carbon monoxide is a silent killer,” said Moschetti. “When a CO2 detector goes off, fire officials need to be called to locate the problem.”

Moschetti said when CO2 is detected, the house needs to remain shut to allow firemen to find the problem. “Don’t turn fans on or open vents because it makes it more difficult to find the problem.”

The first thing homeowners should do when a fire occurs is get out, call 911, and make sure everyone is out of the house, said Moschetti.

George Longest of Upper Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department of Water View said many fires are caused by people refueling portable heaters inside the residence. “It needs to be done outside, and all excess fuel should be wiped off the heater before it is fired back up,” he said.

“We need to encourage our children not to play with matches,” continued Longest. “You would be surprised how many fires are started with matches and candles.”

Jimmy Walden, chief of the Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department of Deltaville, said the county has many old homes in which electrical upgrades have not been made. “I’ve been into old homes where extension cords are under the rugs going to power strips that serve seven things off the one cord,” he said.

“The homeowner needs to have an electrician come in and add a few receptacles,” continued Walden. “I see these situations a lot, and I don’t understand why we don’t have more fires.”

Walden also encourages residents to have smoke detectors in every bedroom, and to have an escape plan to get out of a burning house. “Figure out the best route of escape and if it involves a window, don’t put a big piece of furniture in front of it,” he said. “There is a good chance you are not going to have the minutes you might need to move that furniture.”

Alan Blake, chief of the Hartfield Volunteer Fire De-partment, said he feels the rising cost of home heating fuel has caused many homeowners to burn wood and use electric space heaters.

“Some people have not been using wood for years but now, with the bad economy, they’ve gone back to it,” said Blake. “If they don’t get their chimneys cleaned regularly, they will have fires in their chimneys.”

Culley said he is very proud of the way the county’s four volunteer fire departments work together. “If there is a need anywhere in this county, all four fire departments are there to help. We’ve seen a lot of this over the past several weeks.

“We always have a great turnout of firemen to fight fires,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have the trained and quality firemen that we have up and down the county.”

Culley noted that during the recent rash of fires in Middlesex, fire departments from Gloucester and Essex have responded and helped.  “They know that what we are going through is very unusual and with all these fires our resources have been strained.

“When we talk about the Christmas spirit and love and hope and caring, all we’ve got to do is look at our volunteers in the fire departments and rescue squads. We are a very fortunate county, and they are a gift to all of us,” said Culley. 

posted 12.24.2008

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