Fire organizations cope with internal adversity in 2017

Firefighters stand outside the rear of this fatal fire at 1328 Pepper Road that claimed the life of Gene T. Polk, 89, of Mount Jackson on Feb. 14. Rich Cooley/Daily

Area fire and rescue divisions saw a year of fierce blazes, brave rescues, lost historic buildings and staff controversy in 2017.

A fire destroyed the Strong Oak Workshop in Front Royal in April, fueled by the timber, finishing products and varnish stored in the internal manufacturing plant. The historic stone building that housed the business was severely damaged in the fire, and owner Mike Schmiedicke has since moved the shop to 116 Success Road.

Officials were not able to determine the cause of the fire, and ruled it as accidental.

“Due to the numerous potential fire causes in the area and lack of supporting evidence to determine which ones we were able to rule out … we were not able to conclusively identify and eliminate it down to one potential cause,” said Warren County Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico.

In Shenandoah County, the Strasburg Volunteer Fire Department was roiled by controversy in November when a Virginia State Police search warrant from and April investigation involving five members of the department was unsealed.

Subfreezing temperatures created slick surfaces as firefighters fought a fire at this commercial building that burned in early February at Main and Foundry streets in Woodstock. Fire officials deemed the structure unsafe and the building was immediately razed. Rich Cooley/Daily

The warrant details the alleged rape of a then-17-year-old girl by fire department volunteers at three separate sites. It also alleges that one of the suspects recorded a video of at least one of the incidents and shared it on the video-messaging app SnapChat.

The warrant also identifies the sites of the alleged incidents as the residence of one of the suspects; a room at the Fairfield Inn on Old Valley Pike in Strasburg; and the Strasburg Fire Department Company 51 headquarters at 163 E. King St. in Strasburg.

“People were really quick about making a judgment, but everybody needs to realize that as of now it’s just allegations,” said Strasburg Fire Chief Dale King. “Let’s let the authorities do their job and actually see what the facts are before we jump to conclusions.”

A farmhouse blaze near Mount Jackson claimed the life of one occupant and dealt non-critical injuries to a firefighter in February.

“Right now our career staff throughout the county is doing the best it can,” said Tim Williams, chief of Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue, after the fire was extinguished. “We don’t have enough career or volunteer staff to staff every station throughout the county. Obviously, if Conicville and a cadre of volunteer folks that are trained, we wouldn’t even talk about putting career people in there. That’s part of the reason why we’re seeing these type of events. We probably used 65 to 70 percent of our total resources in Shenandoah County to fight this one fire.”

Gloria Ingram walks across her front yard as her neighbor's home at 377 Front Royal Road goes up in flames in Strasburg in March. Rich Cooley/Daily

Toward the end of the year, a 92-year-old man from Winchester went hunting in the Wolf Gap area and did not return home that night. A 27-hour rescue mission ensued, and area rescue organizations came to the aid of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office, including search and rescue personnel, a helicopter and tracking dogs.

Ultimately, a Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office drone was able to spot the missing hunter after 20 minutes of searching, thanks in no small part to his orange cap.

Sheriff Timothy C. Carter of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office said the department was seeking estimates for purchasing its own drone for similar search and rescue missions.

“It is something that we’ve talked about now for the last couple of years,” Carter said. “It’s another air asset, another tool, and it’s just now starting to be used.”

A faulty overhead light at George’s Chicken ignited and caused $140,000 of damages in November. No injuries were reported.

Sam Welch, captain of the Strasburg Volunteer Rescue Squad, walks toward the road after arriving on the fire scene at 377 Front Royal Road for a house fire in March. Rich Cooley/Daily

In December, the North Fork Resort Campground marked the one-year anniversary of the fire that razed its pool pavilion and left little more than a concrete slab in its place. Campground officials are hopeful that the new walls will go up soon, and that the new pavilion will be completed next summer.