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Closer Look: Firefighters reflect on lessons from Stuff fire

There’s a joke that fighting fires is simple: you put the wet stuff on the red stuff.

The fire at Stuff Recycling on Lexington Road three weeks ago put that and local firefighters to the test as they spent three days battling a fire in a pile of scrap cars, mattresses and other items.

In the end, it took people from at least 35 local and state agencies, millions of gallons of water, buckets upon buckets of fire suppressant foam, hundreds of gallons of fuel, many donations of food and untold coordination and cooperation between all involved.

For much of the operation, firefighters were shuttling water from three locations to the scene, as well as fuel for the trucks on the first day.

At the end of three days, the fire was extinguished. There was no damage to private property from the shuttle operations. And no one had to go to the hospital from the fire scene.

It was one of the biggest fires in Clark County, and possibly one of the largest water shuttle tasks in the state.

It takes more than local firefighters to take care of a fire that big. It takes everyone.

The fire

On Saturday, June 9, firefighters at Clark County Fire Department and Winchester Fire-EMS were working their regular 24-hour shifts. Shortly after 4 p.m., 911 communications officers received the first call about a fire at Stuff Recycling. Moments later, county firefighters were dispatched to the scene.

“The initial call said something was on fire at the back of the property,” Clark County Fire Chief Ernie Barnes said. “When the first crew got there, Stuff (employees) had already tried to pull material that was burning out of the pile. They knocked down what was out pretty quickly, but it had spread into the pile and was going faster than they could.”

The pile, Barnes estimated, was about 300 feet long, 120 feet wide and 40 feet tall of cars, lawn mowers, mattresses and anything destined to be recycled.

“Once they realized it was spreading into the pile, they called a second alarm pretty quickly,” Barnes said, for additional manpower.

While one group went to the front of the property to attack the fire, one county fire crew was sent to another side of the property from Clintonville Road to protect two buildings.

“Our task was to keep the structures between Stuff safe,” Clark County Fire Dept, Capt. Hunt McFarland said.

They soon realized the fire was bigger than the usual response.

“When you put all your water and all your foam on one part of the fire and it doesn’t go out,” McFarland said. “You’d flow 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water and there’s no change in the fire. That’s when the magnitude of the fire hit.”

Adding to the ranks

Winchester Fire-EMS Lt. Matt Blose was on duty at Station 2 that Saturday. An ambulance usually responds with firefighters on an initial call. About 30 minutes later, Blose said the city’s Engine 2 was requested to respond and begin addressing air quality issues as a hazardous materials call.

“There’s a lot of hydrocarbons and petroleum-based products in cars today,” he said. “On top of that, some of those metals, when they get superheated, can give off a lot of toxic fumes.”

Calls began going out for mutual aid from neighboring counties and other fire departments.

The water system in the area is designed for residential use, Barnes said, and not necessarily for fires of that magnitude.

Lexington Fire Department responded quickly with one of their aerial trucks, which set up at the scene on the front of the fire.

Within hours, they set up a massive water shuttle to carry water from hydrants to the scene. A number of fire departments from surrounding counties sent tankers to help carry water from three hydrant locations: one near Clark Regional Medical Center, one at Cleveland Road near Lexington and a third location on Rockwell Road, Winchester Fire-EMS Lt. August Fisher said.

By Saturday night, Barnes said they realized they needed help in running everything as well as securing more resources, so they requested an incident management team from the Bluegrass Emergency Response Team (BERT).

“We knew our command staff was getting weary,” Barnes said. “That’s when we knew it wasn’t working.”

“We were in it until about midnight that first day,” Blose said. “All the county’s resources and a lot of ours were tied up in that first push.”

Fuel and water

With Stuff’s location about midway between Winchester and Lexington, there aren’t a lot of options for fuel or water at the scene.

Tankers ran non-stop between three suitable hydrants to refill and transport it to the scene, where it was dumped into portable tanks and drafted into waiting pumpers to spray onto the fire.

“What was key to the operation was getting the water shuttle set up,” Barnes said. “The bulk of those 35 agencies (which responded) were tankers. We were shuttling with our tanker, but we only have one.”

More important was getting fuel to the trucks on the scene. Breaking down everything to refuel a truck wasn’t an option, so fuel had to be brought in.

“Probably one of the biggest logistical nightmares we tried to help with was fuel,” Fisher said.

The city owns a portable 40-gallon fuel bladder, Blose said, which they used to haul diesel to the scene.

When a fire truck is pumping water, Barnes said it is running at a higher-than-idle speed to keep pumping water. With multiple trucks, they go through a lot of fuel. Lexington’s aerial alone went through three tanks of fuel the first night of the fire, Fisher said.

“That day we had two people and that’s all they did,” Fisher said. “They spent over $3,000 in fuel. They maxed out two of the city’s fuel cards.”

One gas station kept a pump blocked off specifically for the fire department to use, Fisher said.

After the first day, BERT contacted state officials, who sent a tanker truck to the scene to keep the trucks fueled, Barnes said.

“They did a really good job,” Fisher said. “They went back and forth as much as they did with water.”

“We had no accidents, no mailboxes run over,” Barnes said. “We had no firefighters transported from the scene with injuries. We had two minor injuries. That just speaks volumes about the professionalism and competence of all firefighters in Central Kentucky.”

Days two and three

Heading into Sunday, firefighters were still on scene in force. Local firefighters had begun rotating in and out to keep fresh people on the scene and give others much needed rest.

Restaurants in Winchester and Lexington sent food in, as did local residents.

Firefighters were still there from a number of counties and departments, doing what they could.

“Even though the flames had gone down, trying to cool it off took all of Sunday,” Fisher said.

“Lexington left Sunday evening,” McFarland said. “They probably stayed the longest.”

At that point, firefighters and equipment had shown up from Madison, Bourbon, Montgomery, Nicholas, Jessamine, Scott, Estill, Anderson and Woodford counties, Paris and Morehead, along with the full complement of Clark County firefighters. There were state and national agencies as well including the American Red Cross, Kentucky Emergency Management, the Kentucky Fire Commission and BERT, McFarland said.

Clark firefighters finally cleared the scene at 9:31 a.m. Tuesday, June 12.

“For the last 36 hours, we had an engine there with three personnel,” Barnes said. “During that last 36 hours, they were spraying water as Stuff employees were sorting through the pile to expose hot spots.”

The experience also reaffirmed the department’s training, Barnes said.

“When we look at the response we typically have … we do it right,” he said. “On incidents like this, it’s an incident of scale. We were doing what we do, you just scale it up.”

Lessons learned

Barnes said operations on the scene went about as well as could be expected for a fire of that magnitude.

“I’m really proud of my department,” Barnes said. “I’m really proud of my firefighters. As it escalated, they did the right things to keep it from it getting worse.”

Still, it doesn’t mean there aren’t things to improve on, and it can be different for other departments.

For Winchester Fire-EMS, there’s been a lot of training since then on drafting water from sources other than hydrants and using dump tanks.

“We are blessed to have a lot of guys on our department from a rural background that are good at it,” Fisher said.

Blose would like to see more communication between departments about their abilities as well as their gear for major incidents like Stuff.

“We had some compatibility issues with what hose fit whose truck,” Blose said. “For us, it will be updating our adaptors to work with Lexington and Madison County, then getting a plan about who to call for those resources, especially for rural water supply.”

Communication is critical, he said, whether from being able to use the same radio frequencies to making sure they understand each other and what they are bringing, Blose said.

“If we ask for an engine, are we getting one guy or four guys?” he said. “There’s different kinds of tankers.”

One thing that could have helped the residents of the neighboring Verna Hills subdivision, Barnes said, were hose ramps which would allow people to drive over hoses with out damage. Lexington Road itself was shut down for multiple days at the height of fire operations, and the subdivision was largely blocked as well, he said.

“We had Verna Hills shut down for a day and a half,” Barnes said. “If we had hose ramps, that would have helped.”

Sometimes its more supplies. Fisher said they went through the on-hand supply of fire-suppressant foam quickly and had to find more.

McFarland said a typical vehicle fire will use half a bucket of foam. They used 60 buckets at Stuff.

“You can plan for it as best you can,” Fisher said. “We didn’t have enough foam in the county to get a hold on it.”

One of the biggest was seeing the response and assistance from other departments, as well as the public.

“The thing I was impressed with was every surrounding county came to us,” Fisher said. “They brought tankers and worked all night. It was paid guys and volunteers. We’ll help any department. It makes you feel good when they help you.”

“I think a big thing we learned … we have the community behind us,” Barnes said, “between random people dropping off food, restaurants from Wincehster and Lexington sending food. It’s hard to express how much we appreciated that support.

“In the fire service, we feel like it’s a brotherhood.The brotherhood stepped up. They brought their trucks and their people.”

“It didn’t matter how far they came from, they came to help,” McFarland said.

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email fred.petke@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0051.

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