House becomes classroom for firefighters, investigators

November 13, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - An old house on Winchester Avenue that the West Virginia Division of Highways plans to raze to make room for a new road will become a hands-on classroom for local firefighters and arson investigators this weekend.

Members of area fire departments will start five fires in the white, two-story frame house at 655 Winchester Ave., and send in crews to put them out, Paul Bragg, chief of the Martinsburg Fire Department, said Friday night.

Firefighters from the Martinsburg, Baker Heights and Bedington fire departments will take part in the exercise along with local fire investigators from area fire departments and the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department.


Ed Robinson and Paul Ritchie, deputy state fire marshals who investigate fires in the Eastern Panhandle, will conduct an arson class as part of the event.

The actual class will be this morning at the Martinsburg Fire Department headquarters and then move to the Winchester Avenue house, where the students will investigate the cause of five fires that were set in the house Friday night.

"We'll be setting five fires with different scenarios, from accidental to arson," Bragg said.

Less experienced firefighters will be sent into the house to extinguish the fires in an exercise that simulates actual conditions, Bragg said. The causes will be investigated this morning by the student fire investigators.

Winchester Avenue was closed off for the exercise. Traffic was being detoured onto Mall Drive (formerly Rocky Lane) and Buxton Street Friday night.

Firefighters hooked up to hydrants in the area for their water supply.

The West Virginia Division of Highways will demolish the house to make way for a new intersection between Winchester Avenue and Mall Road.

The existing intersection, where Mall Road meets Winchester Avenue at the Winchester Plaza shopping center, is considered dangerous because of the difficulty making a left turn there, officials said. The new intersection will be controlled by a traffic light.

Bragg said at one time the fire department probably would have burned down the house for training, but new West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection rules make it impossible.

While the fire department did not need a DEP permit, it still had to get the OK to set the five small fires in the building because of the possible existence of asbestos, he said.

Bragg said he was in contact with DEP officials in Charleston, W.Va., by telephone and through e-mails to get permission for the training exercise.

The highway department already had removed the asbestos, he said.

Bragg said the fire department still gets requests from residents to burn down old houses and buildings, but they usually change their minds when they find out what they have to do to the buildings first.

Neither fire department officials nor neighbors knew much about the house's history, when it was built or who owned it.

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