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Sixth local fire in 12 weeks

by Tom Chillemi

It took about 45,000 gallons of water to put out a fire that started in Al’s Auto Body Shop near Saluda on November 25. Leasure’s Wrecker Service Inc., which owns the building, also was damaged but is still operating.

Why so many fires?

In the past 12 weeks there have been six major fires that destroyed four houses and two businesses in Middlesex County.

Local firefighters agree the rash of fires is unprecedented. “I don’t remember as many serious fires as we’ve had recently,” said Bill Thrift, chief of the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) in Urbanna, who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 47 years.

On September 16, fire gutted a house on Urbanna Road. Reportedly, the fire was started by a candle that had been dropped on a bedspread.

On October 22, fire claimed a home on Poplar Drive in Piankatank Shores in Hartfield.

Moo’s Diner in Urbanna burned in the early morning hours of November 4. The cause is believed to be electrical.

On November 13, an overheated power strip started a fire that destroyed a waterfront home on Bayport Road in Jamaica in upper Middlesex.

On November 24, an older house in Urbanna was consumed by a fire that started in the furnace area.

On November 25, a commercial building housing Leasure’s Wrecker Service Inc. and Al’s Auto Body Shop on Route 17 near Saluda was severely damaged by fire. The cause has not been determined. Leasure’s is still in operation (see related story in December 4 issue of the Southside Sentinel).

“I can’t remember seeing this many fires in this short a time,” said James Pitts, captain of the MVFD.

Jimmy Walden, chief of the Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department, said the recent number of serious fires is definitely unusual. “You go through spells where you don’t have anything for a couple months, but we’ve had a bunch of fires lately.”

Walden said the LMVFD ladder truck has been used three times in three weeks, two times last week. “It’s just a fluke,” he said.

A fire on Tuesday, November 25, nearly consumed the building that housed Al’s Auto Body Shop and Leasure’s Wrecker Service Inc. on Route 17 near Saluda.

The building, owned by Linda and Chuck Leasure, caught fire about 10:35 a.m. and the Middlesex emergency dispatcher broadcast the call for firefighters to respond to Al’s Auto Body, which is in the front part of the building.

At one point there were 12 fire trucks at the scene. Route 17 was blocked in both directions for about an hour. Traffic was then routed to one lane in each direction while Route 17 North stayed blocked by fire equipment.

“We’re waiting for the cause to be determined,” said Linda Leasure.

Mrs. Leasure said three wrecker trucks were inside the back section of the building when the fire started, but were saved. “We (Leasure’s Wrecker Service) will stay in business and we will rebuild,” she said.

Thick black smoke billowed from the front garage door as firemen began fighting the blaze that would take about six hours to extinguish.

Chuck McAlister of Hartfield said he could see the black smoke from the Robert O. Norris Bridge over the Rappahannock River at Topping.

James Pitts Jr., captain of the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) of Urbanna, and MVFD fire chief Bill Thrift both work at Pitts Lumber, only a few hundred yards from the fire. Pitts, one of the first firefighters on the scene, said the fire appeared to have started “either above or in the office.”

Pitts’ experience told him that fighting this type of fire, in a large commercial building, would require help. “When we got there black smoke was rolling out the front of the building and we knew it was more than we could handle, so we got everybody we could,” he said.

Tanker trucks hustled to keep two dump tanks full so pumpers could draft from them and spray on the fire.

Urbanna Fire Chief Bill Thrift, who was the fire scene commander of the six-hour-plus firefight, reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the blaze. The hydrant at Middlesex High School was utilized for the operation because the large tanker trucks had easier access to make the loop from the fire scene to the school and back. About 30 firefighters worked to knock down the blaze and clean up afterwards.

The ladder truck from the Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department in Deltaville was used to spray water on top of the building.

“We made a good attack on it,” said Pitts. “We knocked it out pretty quick. We’re lucky we have (fire) departments close enough that can get here as quick as they did.”

Deltaville’s ladder truck was used “twice in two days,” noted Pitts, referring to a fire that destroyed a house in Urbanna the day before (see related story).

After the major part of the fire was out, hot spots remained between the layers of the roof, said Thrift. The ceiling was metal with fiberboard over it, and it all is topped with a rubber roof. “That fiberboard kept burning from the underside,” he said.

An excavator was used to remove part of a side wall so firefighters could spray water on the smoldering fiberboard.

About 4 p.m. firefighters returned when smoke was seen coming from the area of the office of Al’s Body Shop, said Mrs. Leasure. Thrift climbed the ladder beside the building and hosed more water into that area.

A Corvette and an older model classic Chevy II were in Al’s Auto Body at the time of the fire and could not be removed until most of the fire was out, said Thrift. Both cars were damaged.

Al Dubeau, owner of Al’s Auto Body, said he was able to get three cars out of his shop before the heavy smoke forced him out of the building.

This week the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office reported that the origin of the fire has been determined to be in the area of the building where the business office and paint storage room were located. This is at the southeast corner of the masonry-constructed building. However, the cause of the fire has not yet been determined. (See Sheriff’s Report, page A3.)

Fire departments that responded came from Urbanna, Water View, Hartfield, Deltaville and Gloucester. The MVFD Auxiliary, the Central Middlesex Volunteer Rescue Squad, VDOT, and Middlesex Sheriff’s Office all assisted at the scene.

Click here to view an audio slideshow about the most recent fire in Middlesex County, which destroyed a commercial building near Saluda.

posted 12.04.2008

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