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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Fire Prompts Criminal Investigation

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Sunday, April 30, 2006

Pownal Valley Fire Department Assistant Chief Joel Howard, Pownal Protective Fire Association Assistant Chief Amalio Jusino and firefighter/emergency medical technician Jody Kocsis discussed firefighting strategy.
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Pownal, Vt. - State fire investigators launched a criminal investigation into an April 29 blaze that charred about six woodland acres after state police Sgt. James Cruise examined the burned site on April 30.

Investigators In Town This Week

Four defined points of fire origin were located along the Mann Hill Road South roadside, said Pownal Valley Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Joel Howard and Pownal Protective Fire Association Assistant Chief Amalio Jusino during a late morning April 30 interview.

Fire investigators plan to spend time this week in town investigating the blaze.

Firefighters remained at the fire scene until 11 p.m. April 29.

Fighting Flare-Ups

Numerous pockets of fire were extinguished after the blaze was deemed under control at about 7:30 p.m., and firefighters created a vast fire line around the area to keep any fire flare-ups from consuming more area, said Jusino.

Firefighters met again at the site at 6 a.m. April 30 to check for remaining "hot spots." Numerous areas that posed a risk of igniting a blaze were found and firefighters took advantage of damp morning weather conditions to eliminate the smoldering sections.

Howard served as the incident commander during the blaze and Jusino acted as a logistics/operations officer. Howard was responsible for on-scene firefighting efforts and Jusino was responsible for all support services, including mutual assistance responses.

The fire was reported at about 5:10 p.m.. Firefighters from the Williamstown, Mass., Bennington Rural and Bennington Village, and Hoosick, N.Y, fire departments delivered manpower and trucks to the scene and town fire stations.

Fire Not A Typical Brush Fire


Bennington Rural fire department firefighter Kevin Mattison fueled up a chainsaw before he headed into the woods to battle an April 29 fire.
Most brush fires that start in the southern Vermont region burn about 18 to 22 inches from the ground and fuel themselves with dry grass, debris, and brush. Local brush fires typically burn in a fairly straight line, Jusino said.

The Saturday fire burned in several directions, including 12 to 20 feet up trees, Howard noted.

"This fire was not a normal southern Vermont brush fire because of the weather conditions, which are drier than usual," said Howard. "The intensity of that fire was greater than a lot of the firefighters have seen."

A significant number of trees caught fire and flames moved straight up tree trunks and into branches. Numerous trees were burned to the point of falling over as firefighters made their way over the rough terrain. Howard and Jusino credited firefighters Murray Lewis Jr., George Harkins and David Dence for their expertise with chainsaws.

The three firefighters cut down trees that were burning or were in immediate danger of igniting without injuring themselves or other firefighters, Jusino and Howard said.

"They were the backbone of keeping the firefighters safe," said Howard.

Mutual Aid Appreciation

All mutual aid firefighters provided tremendous assistance and their efforts kept the fire from spreading over more acreage, both Jusino and Howard said.

Williamstown firefighter Peter Niemeyer


The Williamstown fire department hosted its' annual banquet during the April 29 evening; the WFD firefighters who assisted at the Pownal fire did not have time to change clothing before going to the dinner, Howard said.

"The annual dinner is a pretty big night," said Howard. "And these guys unselfishly stayed 'til the bitter end [until the fire was under control] and then came back up here this morning at 6 a.m. to help us."

Town residents offered valuable assistance as well. Jody Tornabene delivered water to firefighters from an all-terrain vehicle, and James Winchester, owner of Winchester's Store on Route 7, provided food and drink to the firefighters.

"Jody Tornabene was a huge, huge help," Howard said. "We were lucky to have someone like him who knew the lay of the land so well. And Jim Winchester, you can count on him for food and drink when we have big fires. He's gotten up in the middle of the night to get food for us."


Williamstown firefighter Nick DeBenedetto and Bennington Rural firefighter Adam Hall
Howard and Jusino also praised members of the Pownal Rescue Squad for maintaining a presence at the scene and also acknowledged the efforts of Wayne Burgess, who kept a written record of the firefighters at the scene. Pownal firefighters Hans Schiermeyer and Wayne Goddard battled the blaze well into the night and then arrived at the firefighter April 30 meeting place earlier than the others and prepared a breakfast, Howard said.

"These Guys Were Good"

Jusino and Howard agreed that communication between the two assistant chiefs was "phenomenal" and the firefighters brought all their skills to the forefront of the challenging blaze.

"Fire departments are only as good as the guys who are the firefighters," said Howard. "And this fire was the most organized disorganized chaos I've ever encountered. These guys were good."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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