New Castle News

April 9, 2013

‘Very expensive’: Whoever started Shenango brush fire could face big bill

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Officials with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry are leading the investigation into Sunday’s brush fire in Shenango Township.

Although there were no injuries or damage to structures or equipment, Shenango Township’s fire chief estimates 500 acres of ground were burned.

Meanwhile, anyone found responsible for starting the fire could be facing a big bill, regardless of the cause.

According to John Brundege, a forester with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, state law allows for the recovery of expenses in fighting such a fire.

That’s true, Brundege noted, even if there was no criminal intent involved.

So far, there are no official estimates on the costs of fighting Sunday’s brush fire, which impacted an area around Sankey Hill Road, Boyd School Road and Lower Boyd School Road.

“I haven’t even begun to crunch the numbers,” Brundege said Monday. He noted that will involve talking to different fire departments and other agencies to determine their expenses.

But David Rishel, fire chief in Shenango Township, said the effort carried a hefty price tag.

“It’s going to be very expensive.”

Rishel said he was told the cost for the two tanker planes used to drop water on the fire was pegged at $1,200 per hour each. Based on the time they spent fighting the fire, Rishel estimated the plane cost alone at $27,000.

Brian Melcer, Lawrence County’s emergency management director, also said Monday a cost estimate for fighting the fire was not yet available. But he noted the total will add up.

In addition to the planes, Rishel said, every fire department in Lawrence County turned out in one way or another to fight the blaze. At one point, he noted he had 86 volunteers on the lines working to extinguish the flames.

Among those fighting the fire, Rishel said, was a 15-member crew from Jefferson County’s Clear Creek State Park, specially trained in combating such fires.

Sunday’s weather conditions seriously hampered efforts to control the blaze.

Rishel said not only did firefighters have to contend with gusts reaching 45 mph, but he noted the direction of the wind constantly shifted, posing a physical hazard for crews who could find the flames getting behind them. At one point, Rishel said, he had to pull firefighters out and let the blaze burn, because of the danger.

Rishel said he responded to the call about 1:45 p.m. and didn’t return home until 11:30 p.m.

“It was a long day.”

Despite that, Rishel had nothing but praise for the firefighters and other emergency personnel who had responded.

He said the efforts were well coordinated, which he noted was a major factor in preventing injuries or property damage.

“Everyone really pitched in and worked well together.

One key, according to Rishel, was the use of the Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency’s Command Center, which aided communications in the remote region.

In fighting a widespread brush fire, Rishel pointed out, being able to communicate with all parties is crucial to success and safety.

Rishel said Melcer and his deputy, Jeff Parish, were on the scene to assist. He also gave credit to Brundege, who was able to call in the two tanker planes.

Other assistance came from the Pennsylvania State Police, which supplied a helicopter to observe the movement of the fire, the county support unit from Noga Ambulance and the New Castle Fire Department, which remained on call for other departments in case of a second major blaze.

One other factor in battling the fire was the cooperation of the Shenango Township supervisors, Emergency Management Agency and police department, Rishel said. They were able to close roads in the area, which aided the movement of firefighters and kept the curious away.

Rishel expressed special appreciation for the contributions of area businesses and residents who provided food to crews fighting the fire. This included 200 cheeseburgers from McDonald’s, pizzas from Pizza Joe’s and Mr. Pizza and assorted food from Giant Eagle. Residents in the affected area also went out on their own and obtained food for firefighters, Rishel noted.