CENTERBURG — A large field and woods fire which blackened 15 to 20 acres of standing trees and grassy fields on three properties Wednesday afternoon is an example of how quickly an ember from a burn pile can lead to extensive property damage and extremely dangerous conditions.
Firefighters from 11 fire departments in four counties battled the fire, which quickly spread from a trash fire in the back yard of the home at 7587 Columbus Road, near the intersection of Tucker Road.
“We were burning some garbage today,” said Rachelle Horner, who lives in the home owned by her father, Eric Gubin. Horner’s father was not home at the time of the fire.
“The wind hit the right way I guess, and once it went, it went,” Horner said as she stood with her fiance watching the firefighters. “It spread to all three properties.”
Lt. Jason Whipple of the Central Ohio Joint Fire District was in the first unit to arrive on the scene.
“Chief [Joe] Porter asked us to come and assess the situation,” Whipple said. “There was about half an acre burning when we first started, and then the wind picked up.
“When chief got here we watched it leap right over the hill,” he said, pointing at a hill across a few acres of fields. “So we took grass units down there to try to get ahead of it.”
Realizing how quickly the fire was spreading, and how the gusty winds were carrying the fire toward three homes, Porter radioed for mutual aid from most departments in Knox County, as well as departments in Delaware, Morrow and Licking counties.
Mount Vernon Assistant Fire Chief Chris Menapace and an engine company from the Mount Vernon Fire Department were among the first mutual aid units to arrive. Menapace formed an attack team which fought the fire toward the northern side of the blaze, and was given the task of holding the fire back away from a home deep in the woods.
“Our initial assignment was to supply water to Centerburg’s grass unit,” Menapace explained. “With the high wind conditions, the fire spread into the woods. We had to drag structural firefighting hose approximately 800 feet to protect a home.”
As the fire continued to spread, Fredericktown Fire Chief Scott Mast and Assistant Chief Larry Schunke took teams of firefighters toward the back of the fire with backpacks full of water sprayed from handheld hoses, and grass trucks with full tanks.
Porter commanded the incident, while Whipple, Menapace, Mast and Schunke coordinated the attacks on the spreading fire.
Brian Hess, interim Knox County EMA director, responded with the EMA vehicle to manage accountability, keeping track of the locations of the dozens of firefighters on the scene.
“The state EMA was notified,” Hess said. “And I’ve contacted the State Division of Forestry, and they are on standby.” Hess requested relief from the Knox County Chapter of the American Red Cross for up to 100 firefighters.
“It probably goes about a mile back there in the woods,” Porter said at the height of the fire.
Firefighters said flames were shooting 12 to 15 feet high and leaping into evergreens as the fire spread closer to New Delaware Road.
“It swung around us, and it was like a wall of fire,” Whipple said.
“And it was really hot,” he said, rubbing a singed eyebrow.
Angie Trowbridge, who lives at the home next door to where the fire started, said she was driving home around 12:45 p.m. and saw all of the emergency vehicles. She said she immediately feared for the well-being of her grandmother, Hazel Peterson, who lives with her. Her grandmother was not home. When Trowbridge arrived, the fire had already charred much of the property behind her home.
“It had gone all the way across the woods. Thank goodness it didn’t hit the house,” she said.
Porter said the firefighting was aimed at protecting Trowbridge’s home, as well as the Gubin home, and the home back in the woods.
“If Menapace and his group hadn’t got it stopped here, we would have lost this house,” he said pointing at the Trowbridge-Peterson home.
Equipment and personnel were on scene from COJFD, MVFD, Fredericktown, Utica, Homer, College Township, Hartford, Monroe Township (Johnstown), Harlem Township and Porter-Kingston from Delaware County, and Big Walnut from Marengo.
“With the way the wind was blowing, as dry as it is, we needed lots of people, and lots of grass trucks,” Porter explained.
“I think it was great,” Porter said of the mutliple agency cooperation. “We could have used a helicopter, though.”
Once the fire was out, the 50 to 60 firefighters were fed sandwiches prepared by the Mount Vernon branch of The Salvation Army. Red Cross volunteers distributed the sandwiches and provided cold drinks for the firefighters.
Open burning is illegal in the state of Ohio in rural areas, during the burn ban months of March, April, May, October and November, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. MVFD Chief Shawn Christy said the large destructive fire was a good example of why open burning is so restricted.
“The reason why I take open burning so seriously, is because it affects not only the homeowner but their neighbors as well,” Christy said, standing in front of the Trowbridge-Peterson home.
“With the wind, and dry conditions and how fast it was moving, we could have lost homes here,” the chief said, gesturing toward the homes in the distance.