Year in Review: Local fire departments responded to thousands of calls in 2016

Fire departments throughout Warren, Frederick and Shenandoah counties responded to numerous calls for their services in 2016. Firefighters in Frederick County responded to 10,426 events alone as of Wednesday, 200 more than the prior year. Statistics for the other counties were not immediately available.

Some notable blazes included a fire that burned substantial amounts of land in the mid-southern reaches of Shenandoah National Park as well as damaging conflagrations that claimed a Front Royal motel and a Warren County campground event center.

Shenandoah County saw a changing of the guard when Chief Gary Yew announced his retirement in August. Yew served as chief for 15 years, the culmination of a career that spanned more than 30 years.

“Quite frankly, I’ve never worked some place where I’ve seen that kind of dedication before,” the retiring chief said. “I’m so proud of that. It’s the type of staff that needs little direction from me. They’re creative. They’re hardworking. They’re dedicated to what they do and they get the job done. Leaving those type of people is emotional for me.”

Yew’s retirement left a vacancy that was filled in September by former operations chief Tim Williams.

“I am honored and humbled by this opportunity,” Williams stated in a release. “This is the culmination of a lifetime in public service. Since I was a teenager, I have devoted many years to the fire and rescue service and to Shenandoah County.”

Also, a late October fire significantly damaged the Sunshine Inn in Front Royal. No one was hurt. Residents were a combination of daily and weekly customers who were using the motel as their home at the time of the fire.

Shiv Patel, the motel’s manager described what he saw when he arrived on the scene. He said that rebuilding was the most likely route for the building’s owners.

“I came within 10 minutes after it happened,” he said. “It was all covered in flames. All I could see was red and black, holes in the roof. All we could do was stand outside. You could see the damage everywhere with flames starting in random spots. You couldn’t see anything. … It wasn’t fun to watch.”

A few months after the Sunshine Inn burned, the North Fork Resort Campground suffered the total destruction of its pool pavilion, the result of an overloaded electrical outlet. The damage was estimated at $300,000.

John Barnes, the manager of the campground located near Front Royal, explained what the structure was used for.

“It’s a community hall that we use for bingo, owners’ meetings and owners’ events,” Barnes said. “Inside it was a game room on one side, and our maintenance shop was in the bottom and we had a little cafe on one side.”

Chief Richard Mabie described what he and his firefighters saw upon their arrival at the scene.

“When the first unit got there from Front Royal, the roof was caving in so it was what we call defensive operations from the beginning,” he said. “Hopefully they have insurance.”

Fire affected more than buildings during 2016. In April, a wildfire in the mid-southern end of Shenandoah National Park raged for weeks before it was contained at the end of the month.

Known as the Rocky Mount Fire, residents as far north as Washington, D.C., reported smelling smoke, said Sally Hurlbert, public information officer for the park.

“With many fires, when the smoke gets up to a certain level, the winds will transport it a long distance, and yesterday the winds happened to be heading northeast,” she said.

The extensive rehabilitation of the burned areas is ongoing, but the results of the fire had some benefits, said Stephen Paull, a biological science technician in the park.

“The table mountain pinecones are serotinous,” said Paull. “What that means is they need heat in order for the cone to expand to release those seeds. … table mountain pine is a pine species that, if you don’t have occasional fire, the seeds are not able to germinate because so much organic material builds up.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com.