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Firefighters from 3 states battle blaze

November 28, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

SHANNONDALE, W.VA.

daniels@herald-mail.com

An early-morning wildfire Sunday burned between 100 and 150 acres in a mountainous area near the Appalachian Trail in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Fire and rescue crews from three states worked from before sunrise to beyond sunset to clear paths to the flames, contain the fire, extinguish it and ensure it did not reignite.

Fire crews responded at about 12:43 a.m. to the fire between Mission Road and Eagles Nest Lane in Shannondale. For more than two hours, they worked to cut down trees and other debris in order to position themselves to fight the fire, said Mary Maguire, public information officer with the Loudoun County, Va., Department of Fire, Rescue & Emergency Management.

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Patches of scorched earth smoldered as firefighters worked their way down the mountainside. Personnel driving all-terrain vehicles and other off-road vehicles ferried firefighters between a staging area along Mission Road and the fire scene along bumpy, muddy, access roads and freshly cut paths strewn with downed tree limbs.

Excavating equipment was brought in to clear the narrow paths mapped out by planning teams familiar with the area. Maguire said even with the heavy equipment, fire crews were forced to use chain saws and axes in some of the more dense areas of the mountain.

Firetrucks could not get close enough to the fire, Maguire said, so crews used portable water packs and shoveled loads of soil to smother the flames. A Gettysburg, Pa., helicopter company aided crews by dropping 100-gallon buckets of water over hot spots, as directed by incident commanders on the ground.

Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Scott Knill said he could not recall fighting a fire as large as Sunday's. In addition to acreage, he said one of the most significant challenges was gaining access to the specific points of fire.

Knill said it was too early to determine the cause of the fire, which will be a difficult task even after crews have put out the flames. There have been some wildfires in the area in the past, he said.

As the fire burned, emergency crews did not evacuate residents because the nearest home was at least 400 yards away and never in danger.

Andy West, assistant chief with the Washington County Department of Emergency Services, Office of Special Operations, said members of his department responded at about 4 a.m. with two specialty units designed to carry water and excavate land in narrow areas.

"When we got up here, there was actually a full mountain of fire," West said.

West said he hoped crews would be able to put out the fires by nightfall, when it becomes considerably more difficult to maintain the safety of workers within the densely wooded area. He said he was pleased with the number of departments that responded.

Fire and rescue crews from Grant, Hardy, Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia were joined by crews from Frederick, Washington and Montgomery counties in Maryland and Loudoun, Clarke and Prince William counties in Virginia.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, West Virginia State Police Department, Jefferson County Communications, the forestry divisions from West Virginia and Virginia, and the National Park Service also responded.

More than 200 fire and rescue personnel responded to the scene throughout the day, including about 140 by noon Sunday. Law enforcement officials blocked off large portions of Mission Road leading up to and beyond Mount Mission Park, where firefighters had set up a staging area. Arriving firetrucks and apparatus lined the roadway.

Maguire said about 75 percent of the fire was contained by about 11 a.m., and the remainder by early afternoon. Except for a patch along the northeast corner, the fires had been put out by 5 p.m. Maguire said with the onset of rain, officials began to pull firefighters from the mountain at 4 p.m.

A contingent of emergency responders from the National Park Service and the forestry divisions in West Virginia and Virginia were expected to remain on-scene overnight and fire crews were to return as needed Monday morning to put out any remaining fires, Maguire said.

Two firefighters sustained minor injuries and were treated at the scene, and a third from Loudoun County was taken to Jefferson County Hospital for exhaustion, officials said.

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