Gates firemen answer eight calls

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 11, 2008

Dec. 7, 1941 was hailed as a day that will live in infamy.

Ditto for Feb. 10, 2008….at least by Gates County standards.

Fueled by constant winds in excess of 30 mph with higher gusts, Gates County was the scene of eight forest fires on Sunday, a day described as unprecedented in the annals of the county’s long history.

“I’ve never experienced another day like that one,” Gates County Emergency Management Director Billy Winn said. “But when you step back and look at Sunday from an overall standpoint, it could have been worse, much worse. We were very lucky there wasn’t more damage to real property or, even worse, loss of life. Fortunately, what was damaged can be replaced…you can’t replace a life.”

One Gates County resident, Helen Riddick of Drum Hill Church Lane, did lose her home to fire. Her singlewide mobile home was consumed by the wind-driven fire early Sunday evening.

Several other county residents were asked to leave their homes. That was particularly noted in Sunday’s first fire, a blaze that started on Bosley Road and eventually, after passing through a wooded area, threatened homes along a stretch of Acorn Hill Road.

That was just the beginning of what proved as a long day (and night) for Gates County emergency responders. Winn said each of the county’s rural fire departments and in excess of 100 firefighters and EMS personnel were involved, as were the Gates County office of the North Carolina Forest Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

“Thank God for those firemen,” said David Jarrett of Acorn Hill Road. “That was one scary situation. You could hear the roar as the fire came through the trees. I stayed as long as I could, but I finally got out.”

After jumping from the woods, the fire made a beeline for Jarrett’s home, but quick action by firemen prevented the residence from suffering any damage. All that’s left for visible evidence is a burnt streak across a portion of Jarrett’s back and front yard.

Winn said residents of eight homes were evacuated in that blaze, one reported around 11:30 a.m. It took until 9 p.m. to bring under control, although several “hot spots” remained in the burned-over area.

Sunbury, Hobbsville and Gatesville fire departments responded. The Forest Service committed three plows to the blaze.

“Outside of protecting the homes, our other biggest concern was preventing the fire from jumping the road and getting into the Dismal Swamp,” Winn said. “It did jump the road in one spot, but the firemen got that knocked down very quickly. Those guys did one heck of a job all day long and nearly all night long.”

Winn said the cause of the Bosley Road/Acorn Hill fire, estimated at 300 acres, remained under investigation. However, he stressed that evidence had been collected.

Fire number two was small in nature, spotted near Gatesville and extinguished by Gatesville firefighters responding to Bosley Road.

The day’s second largest fire occurred at around 2:20 p.m. at Middle Swamp Road and Union Branch Road. This blaze, approximately 30-40 acres, was handled by the Gates, Gatesville and Eure fire departments. A Forest Service plow was also used.

“There were about 10 to 12 homes there that were threatened,” Winn said. “The homeowners were notified of the situation, but there were no mandatory evacuations.”

At 3 p.m., the Gates Fire Department responded to a blaze on Drum Hill Hunt Club Lane. That fire consumed approximately 20-30 acres, the cause of which is under investigation.

Property damage was confined to J&E Auto where eight vehicles were destroyed.

“That fire had tremendous potential to get real ugly, but the wind blew it into the woods rather than towards a cluster of homes in that neighborhood,” Winn said.

At the same time, a fire was reported along Hazelton Road in the Green Acres subdivision. That blaze, the cause still unknown, was confined to approximately three acres. Several homes were threatened, but the fire remained in the woods. It did destroy one enclosed trailer.

The Gates Fire Department remained on the Green Acres fire until midnight Sunday. One fire plow was used.

Meanwhile, on the back side of the fire at J&E Auto, blaze number six sprang to life. That fire was on Drum Hill Church Lane where Riddick lost her home. The Sunbury and Gates fire departments responded, as did a Forest Service plow.

The last two fires were small in nature, both sparked by downed power lines due to the high wind. The Gates and Eure fire departments responded to one power line fire on US 13 near Smith Road at around 4:30 p.m. Approximately 90 minutes later, the Gatesville and Eure fire departments extinguished a power line fire on Turner Road near NC 137.

The US 13 blaze rekindled Monday morning, causing a brief traffic delay as Gates firemen responded again to douse the flames.

“I’ve been a firefighter for 13 years and I’ve never seen anything like these past two days,” Gates Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Taylor said after working Monday’s blaze on US 13.