Fire Protection: Noteworthy News of 2006
Reno, NV-An arson fire occurring on Halloween night in downtown Reno claimed the lives of 12 people. A resident of the Mizpah Hotel, 47-year-old Valerie Moore, is alleged to have started the fire and was being held in the Washoe County Jail (as of press time). The north section of the structure, built in 1922, received the worst destruction, while the south end sustained extensive smoke and water damage. Due to excessive heat and damage to lobby and staircase areas, Reno firefighters were only able to access the fire via the south end of the hotel. The response team included ATF investigators, search and rescue dogs, the Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team, fire protection engineers, accelerant-detection dogs and electrical engineers. First-floor business and shop owners are being helped by Reno’s Redevelopment Agency assistance programs and relocation plans. Anyone with information regarding the fire or tenants of the hotel is asked to contact the Reno Fire Department at (775) 334-2300.
Quincy, MA-In an out-of-court settlement, the International Code Council (ICC) has withdrawn a copyright infringement lawsuit against the NFPA regarding several trademark issues. The agreement allows for and protects the NFPA’s right to continue to publish its NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code. An additional dispute involving the U.S. Patent Office over the use of the phrase “Certified Building Official” has been resolved by permitting the NFPA to register qualified individuals as a “NFPA-Certified Building Official” or “NFPA-CBO.” Also settled was the prior ICC use of NFPA’s International Electrical Code trademark, stemming from litigation filed in 2003 by the NFPA, charging violation of a 1999 settlement agreement.
Orlando, FL-The oldest tourist attraction in Florida was closed following an early-morning blaze on Nov. 6. Gatorland, which opened in 1949, attracts roughly 400,000 tourists each year. The main entrance, gift shop and ticket booth received the worst damage from the fire. Only two 8-ft. pythons and two 5-ft. crocodiles, kept in pens near the entrance, died in the incident. Alligators took refuge deep in the park’s lake. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
San Antonio, TX-American soldiers who are burned overseas come to the Brook Army Medical Center for hospitalization and treatment. A Fisher House refers to one of several hotels there where the soldier’s family can stay for little or no charge during the stay of their son or daughter. On a recent visit to the troops at San Antonio’s BAMC, actor Denzel Washington inquired about the cost of construction of a Fisher House. Before leaving, he wrote a check in the full amount for another Fisher House needed by the base.
Cabazon, CA-A wall of flames from a horrific wind-driven wildfire about 90 miles east of Los Angeles engulfed a fire engine on Oct. 26, killing four firefighters inside. A fifth federal firefighter was critically injured, suffering burns over 90% of his body, and later perished. The fire’s quick advance was fueled by dry conditions and desert winds exceeding 25 mph. Overall, hundreds of residents had to be evacuated and 34 homes were leveled. The deaths raised the number of California firefighters killed in the line of duty to 20 during the past year.
Eventually, more than 40,000 acres burned in the Esperanza wildfire as more than 1,700 firefighters fought for containment. A DC-10 jet aided a fleet of helicopters and airtankers by strategically dropping 12,000-gallon loads of fire retardant. During the efforts, local fire chiefs discussed the rash of fires in the area that had occurred over the previous three months. Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins told reporters on Oct. 27 that “this is a deliberately set fire. And a deliberately set fire that results in the death of anyone constitutes murder.”
After determining the origin and time (1:00 a.m.) of the arson, fire officials immediately offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. The reward fund escalated to $500,000 days later. On Nov. 2, a 36-year-old mechanic was accused of starting the wildfire and is being held without bail. He is charged with 11 counts of arson using an incendiary device, and accused of setting fires from June 7 to Oct. 26. The accused faces a minimum of life in prison without parole if convicted.
When an arson forensics team of investigators studies a forest fire, they begin by interviewing witnesses and analyzing indicators such as burn patterns on rocks and trees to isolate the area of origin. They then comb the area with magnets and other tools to search for pieces of evidence. Efforts become more difficult in many Western regions, where the ground cover consists mostly of chaparral and dry grass, which burns fast and hot.
The 2006 wildfire season set a record for the number of acres burned in the United States, totaling more than 8.6 million by September. At that point, the wildfire outbreak had nearly exhausted national allocation resources, causing the Senate to approve a $275 million cash infusion to the $1.4 billion annual firefighting budget. In August alone, 2.2 million acres were destroyed. The areas hardest hit were Arizona and Southern California.
- Serial arsonist and former police officer Chris Mock was sentenced to 20 years in prison in October for setting 14 apartment fires in metro Atlanta neighborhoods. Witnesses had spotted the 45-year-old Mock with a bottle of gasoline near one of the fires.
- In Casper, WY, an arsonist with a long criminal record, Douglas Szymanski, received a 16-year sentence last January for setting a neighbor’s apartment on fire. District Attorney Mike Blonigen summarized the crime as “a simple act of domestic terrorism.”
- In Holloway (eastern Ohio), a former firefighter pled guilty to two accounts of arson. In October, a Belmont County judge sentenced Richard Dunlap to five years’ probation provided that he continues with psychiatric treatment.
- On Oct. 24, Vicky Johnson of Calumet, MI, pled guilty to setting fire to her boyfriend’s apartment. She was sentenced to nine months in jail and ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution.
- On Oct. 20, 40-year-old serial arsonist Russell Dorney was sentenced to 30 years in the Pennsylvania state prison for setting various fires. One of these torched the landmark Bath Hotel, erected in 1826. After being ordered to pay $987,880 in restitution, Dorney said, “I’m sorry for the things I did and I don’t know why I did them.” University of Central Florida student Matthew Damsky was more specific. After being arrested for lighting a couch on fire and starting a dormitory blaze, he explained his actions to fire officials as “a way to meet women during the evacuation.”
- A federal jury in Baltimore convicted amusement park worker Patrick Walsh of 35 counts of arson to a string of Maryland homes. He was later sentenced to 19 years, and his two accomplices each received 7-year sentences. All perpetrators are 21 years old, their motives being anger and “a way to make a name” for their group, which includes two remaining co-defendants.
- A 21-year-old ‘2004 Firefighter of the Year’ in Colorado, Austin Mayo, was sentenced one year ago for burning down the historic Virginia Dale Community Church, in addition to three other structures. Mayo went to fight the church fire after he started it. His defense attorney, Linda Miller, said that his 9-year prison sentence is proportional to what other convicted arsonists had received the previous year in Larimer County.
Unfortunately, this list doesn’t even cover a fraction of the alarming and reprehensible number of annual U.S. arson convictions. It’s not surprising that the courts show little leniency toward those who deliberately put the general public in peril.
Sometimes there is no leniency whatsoever. A police investigation in Yulin, China, reported that a farmer named Liang Zhishu carelessly discarded a cigarette while collecting brush in a forest on the afternoon of January 3. He attempted to control the fire, but gave up after strong winds fueled the blaze, which eventually burned 230 acres and claimed the lives of 11 people. On Nov. 3, 2006, he received a life sentence for his actions.
Today, arson remains the major cause of fatalities, injuries and dollar loss for all U.S. commercial properties.