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Firemen fight simultaneous Easter blazes

From left, Lt. Eugene Edwards probes the church’s soffit as firefighters Brandon Barber and Jesse Boone look for signs of fire.

Easter Sunday’s calm was shattered for local firemen around 2 p.m., April 1, when fires broke out almost simultaneously in a field just outside Atmore and in the rectory of a South Main Street church.

An Atmore Fire Department pumper and brush truck were sent to McKenzie Drive, just off Jack Springs Road, at 1:58 p.m. to tackle a fire that began when a spark was sent flying into a field of dry fennel, grass and broom straw after a truck backfired.

The crew battling that blaze called for reinforcements, and a second pumper was dispatched to the field, where intermittent breezes fanned the flames and sent them sweeping across the meadow, threatening several nearby homes.

As the second set of firefighters left to answer the call for assistance, they noticed a plume of gray-black smoke coming from a location along South Main. As they rode by to investigate, Reverend Arulappan Jayaraj at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church ran from the church rectory, waving frantically and shouting that the building was afire.

The two-man AFD team, later augmented by an off-duty fireman still in his “Sunday clothes,” made their way inside the smoke-filled parsonage, where a fire had erupted in the kitchen, around 2:01 p.m.

Reports show they were able to contain the fire damage to the area around the stove, but smoke and water damage to the living quarters was “fairly significant.” A blackening of the soffit under the building’s eaves indicated a heat build-up, forcing firefighters to poke a hole in the overhang to make sure no fire was smoldering there.

Lt. Eugene Edwards, the ranking officer on the scene, said the damage could have been much worse if he and Firefighter Brandon Barber had not spotted the smoke as they prepared to join the effort to suppress the field fire.

“Another five minutes, and they would have been in trouble,” Edwards said. “We were on our way to the field fire and just happened to see the smoke from Station Four. If we had gotten out there, there’s no way we could have got back over here before it was too late.”

Edwards and Barber were joined by Firefighter Jesse Boone, who left his family’s Sunday dinner to help suppress the church fire. The trio remained on the scene for an hour to make sure the flames were quelled.

Meanwhile, Capt. Chris Hughes, Firefighter Jake Lambert and at least one unidentified volunteer continued to fight the field fire. Reinforcements arrived from Poarch Fire Department, and the all-clear was given around 3:30 p.m., after the blaze had blackened more than an acre of pastureland.

AFD Chief Ron Peebles said this week that the remainder of the department’s Easter shift was “pretty quiet.”

Intermittent breezes fed the flames as they swept across the McKenzie Drive pasture.