'Could have been a disaster'

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Marcie Nelson, left, and Rachel Simmons of Disaster Team Inc. wraps up picture frames and other items that are to be restored by cleaning and sanitizing on Wednesday following a fire caused by lightning at the Daviess County Fire Department’s East Station.

Officials with the Daviess County Fire Department say a fire at the department headquarters on Kentucky 54 Tuesday night could have been much worse had it not been for the quick action of firefighting personnel who responded to the blaze above their living quarters within seconds.

Cleanup efforts had already begun at the East Daviess County Fire Station on Wednesday morning after firefighters there say a bolt of lightning that struck the building's roof shortly after 6:30 p.m. a day earlier nearly instantaneously set the attic ablaze.

Disaster response teams began moving firefighting and life-saving equipment out of the station and transferring it to the Thruston-Philpot Volunteer Fire Department station on Reid Road.

Chief Dwane Smeathers said the eastside engine department will settle there until the fire-damaged station can be repaired.

Smeathers and his colleagues are counting their blessings this week, however, the chief said, because the sudden blaze "could have been a disaster."

"I don't have a doubt in my mind that had our guys not been in the station, this could have been a near-total loss," he said. "It was a ferocious fire in that attic, with temperatures higher than we would have expected. Had they not been there, or even if they had just been a mile down the road gassing up a truck, the fire could have entirely consumed the living quarters."

Instead, firefighters were on the scene when scattered thunderstorms rolled across eastern Daviess County tagged the 2,800-square-foot building with lightning.

Lt. Charlie Rafferty and three other firefighters had just finished dinner and had begun to clean up the kitchen when they heard the rap of heavy rain atop the gable roof.

"Two of the guys went to close the bay doors where the wind was blowing the rain inside when it hit," Rafferty said. "It was loud, and it didn't sound like the pop or boom you would expect from a clap of thunder. It was a crack -- sharp and nearby -- that startled us. We didn't know if it had hit us or something around us, because the power never went out. The lights didn't even flicker. I went out into the bay, but as soon as we walked back inside the living quarters we smelled smoke."

Raffterty said the company leaped into action without even a command. The engine driver grabbed keys and started to move the fire engine, a medical response truck and Polaris Ranger out of harm's way, while others grabbed a thermal imaging camera from the truck to detect the source of the flames without feeding them with oxygen.

Readings near an electrical panel above the kitchen clocked in at well over 800-degrees, the lieutenant said, indicating that mere seconds had turned the smolder into a blaze.

The nearest fire hydrant was across the street, Rafferty said, so he made the decision to hook loose lines up to the station itself, essentially relying on the station's own water supply to save itself.

It took fewer than 30 minutes for the crew and, by that time, dozens of other station personnel to maintain the fire. The quick action contained damage to the roof, ceilings and walls, sparing all necessary firefighting apparatuses and, more importantly, lives.

"A few more minutes of lag time and our best suppression efforts would have still left the building without a roof," Rafferty said. "It was burning really, really hot."

For now, Smeathers said, he has turned his attention to the logistics of moving an entire engine company north 4 miles to the volunteer fire department in Thruston. He and the county made that decision because the station is newer and larger, he said. Its amenities can support a full-time crew.

By moving the department northward, there were some concerns about the ability to respond in the Masonville area, but response time indicates that the Daviess County Airport Fire Station can respond to most of that area at almost the exact same time the east station could, so emergency IDs in that area have all shifted to that station for the time being, the chief said.

At most, officials say, less than a minute could be added to response times in that area of southern Daviess County, which isn't ideal, but is manageable for a short period of time.

Meanwhile, Daviess Fiscal Court has been in touch with the county's insurance company and adjusters will be on site Friday morning to assess the damage. The outpouring of support from firefighting brethren, Smeathers said, has been humbling, and he expects to return to the damaged time soon enough.

The department's administrative offices will take up temporary residence in the airport fire station, he said.

Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, aramsey@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey

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