Minden firefighters will look a little harder at state regulations before setting their next practice blaze.
Its last real-world training effort got the South Minden Volunteer Fire Department a $1,000 fine — not for setting fire to a disused structure, but for not removing the trash inside before striking the match.
“We were asked to do a controlled burn by a landowner,” said Douglas Simmons, a firefighter and the department treasurer. “And we did.”
The property owner on Clinton Road in the Otsego County town of Westford had a barn he was looking to remove.
The department used the opportunity to practice its firefighting skills, setting the blaze Jan. 19. “We try to do that as often as we can,” Simmons said of the 40-member department. “Show the new guys how to use the hoses.”
Such training exercises are permitted under New York law, but according to the order of consent filed Feb. 19 by the Department of Environmental Conservation, “Upon inspection of the site, department staff observed the contents of the fire which included springs of at least four mattresses, several vehicle rims, numerous plastic containers, wire from which the insulation had been burned off, shoes and boots, painted wood and metal containers.”
Simmons said a neighbor took issue with the smoke and called the DEC. When inspectors arrived and found remnants of trash, the fire became a matter of solid waste and air violations rather than training.
State regulations require trash of the variety found in the old burned barn to be disposed of in landfills. While burning the barn was legal, burning the trash inside was not. In the eyes of the law, it is similar to burning household trash in the backyard.
Simmons dismissed the idea that anything harmful may have been burned in the training fire, saying: “If there had been any hazardous materials inside we wouldn’t have burned the place.”
The fire department has already paid the fine, which Simmons referred to as a slap on the wrist. While he said the DEC could have “nailed us for a lot more,” the $1,000 fine will be felt by the department.
Last year their total expenses were in the neighborhood of $90,000, but the department’s budget margins are slim. It is paying off a recent engine purchase and the relatively new firehouse.
“We’re a small department,” he said. “We could have bought a couple sets of turnout gear with that money.”
Furthermore, he said, such fines will deter training in the future, possibly sending firefighters into a situation without the proper experience.
“We wanted to practice and the landowner wanted a cleaner lot,” he said. “No good deed goes unpunished.”