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Arson at the park – AFD fights playground, house, industrial fires

AFD captains Zack Stewart, left, and Daniel Love examine a burnt section of a plastic slide after placing crime scene tape around the free-standing playground.

Atmore firefighters got an eclectic mix of calls over a three-day period last week (December 28-30), when they were sent to the site of a deliberately set playground fire at a public park, a blaze that effectively destroyed a local residence, and another fire that disrupted production at a local factory.

AFD personnel were sent to Houston Avery Park, just off Martin Luther King Drive, around 3 last Thursday afternoon after someone set the park’s freestanding playground afire.

A chainsaw was used to cut a burning section of a plastic slide from the main body of the apparatus, which includes slides, climbers and tunnels. They extinguished the flames, which had caused melting plastic to drip onto wood shavings that cushion the turf beneath the playground, then placed yellow crime scene tape around it.

Atmore police patrol officers and at least one detective also responded, gathering what evidence they could in an obvious case of arson and vandalism.
Fire Chief Ron Peebles and Mayor Jim Staff each expressed doubt that the perpetrator of the crime would ever be caught, as possible witnesses questioned at the scene claimed to have seen nothing out of the ordinary.

Firefighters were dispatched around 11 p.m. Friday to a Liberty Street address, where a short in an electric space heater is believed to be the cause of a fire that gutted the home and partially burned two vehicles parked in its front yard.

Firefighters from Atmore and Poarch, augmented by a handful of Walnut Hill volunteers, remained on the scene until shortly before 1 a.m., Saturday, fighting to contain pockets of flame that cropped up at various points along the inside and outside of the wooden dwelling.

Smoke continued to billow from beneath the home’s eaves and from its upper section as fire personnel poked and prodded the porch soffit and sprayed water into the smoky darkness of the attic area. The displaced residents stood together across the street, some of them huddled in blankets, as the fire-suppression effort progressed.

AFD Capt. Jeremy Blackmon reported that an occupant of the home told him she saw a spark from the heater cord and tried to unplug the appliance, but the cord was too hot. She went to get someone to help her, but found when she got back that flames had begun to spread across the room in which the heater was being utilized.

Peebles said the incident marked the city’s first fire of the fall and winter season that involved a space heater or other means of warding off cold weather.

Two days earlier, on Wednesday, Atmore firefighters were joined by those from Poarch, Nokomis and Walnut Hill in a more-than-five-hour battle against a sulfur fire that erupted at Tiger Sul, a factory that recovers and refines sulfur from sour natural gas and other compounds.

Peebles said the blaze, which was reported around 4:30 a.m., probably started in a conveyor belt, and that it didn’t spread into the plant’s hoppers.

“We finished up around 10 a.m.,” he said. “The fire was contained in one part of the building, mostly on a conveyor belt. It never spread, and only the ceiling insulation was burned. He said the incident caused a halt to production for “just a short while,” until smoke was cleared from the Industrial Avenue building.

He explained that burning sulfur is hard to extinguish and that a fog stream was used to smother the burning powder.

“It’s kind of like putting water on a grease fire,” he said. “The dust is so fine that it ignites like gasoline when you shoot the water to it.”

Firefighters prepare to enter a Liberty Street home as smoke pours from beneath the home’s eaves.