Both firefighters injured in Monday’s blaze at Southern Fuelwood have left the hospital, but Alachua County Fire Chief Harold Theus says he wants to see changes at the Newberry business where repeated fires have occurred.
“This is an environment that I don’t feel comfortable in the safety of our firefighters extinguishing these fires,” Theus said in an interview. “I’m making that known now, and I don’t want to see any other injuries out there—not just to our firefighters but to their employees during these events.
Theus said Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) has responded to 11 fires at Southern Fuelwood over the past 27 months—more than one fire every three months. Theus said no other location comes close to the number of repeat calls and the site poses particular challenges for responders.
While the business is within Newberry’s jurisdiction, Monday’s fire pulled units from the High Springs Fire Department and ACFR locations in Jonesville, Archer and Alachua.
A Newberry and ACFR firefighter were both injured after a manufacturing door fell off its hinges and hit them. The Newberry employee was released the same night, but the ACFR employee suffered broken ribs and underwent surgery to repair a broken leg. He was released on Thursday.
Pat Post, who started Southern Fuelwood at age 17, said those injuries should have never happened and credited the fire departments for doing a magnificent job. He said the door hinges hadn’t broken, and the doors had never fallen off before. Regardless, Post said he’s already modified the hinges to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Post said he’s willing to adjust in other ways but needs someone to show him how. He said he’s traveled across the United States and Europe to improve his firewood business, but he’s constrained by state statute.
For the first 25 years of his business, Post said, the company never had a fire. It only used “sunshine and Mother Nature” to dry its product. But in 2010, the Florida Legislature passed a code change, 5B-65, that changed the situation.
Post said for commercial operations of his size, 5B-65 requires the company to treat the wood by heating it up. The rule tries to prevent the spread of wood-born pests and pathogens by raising the firewood to 160 degrees before transport and sale.
Theus said their warehouses are stacked full of materials made for burning. When one piece of firewood catches, it creates a tough environment for his firefighters.
Theus said he has felt uncomfortable with the situation for a time, but ACFR lacks jurisdiction. He said he wanted to sit down with the city of Newberry and Southern Fuelwood to find a solution.
“I was upset by our employees being injured on the scene,” Theus said. “I’d like to see some enhanced safety practices that take place out there so that we don’t have this event reoccur and so we don’t have a more serious injury that takes place.”
Post agreed that the situation—which he illustrated as putting firewood in an oven—creates an environment for fires. But he says that’s the state code he must operate by.
Post added that he wouldn’t fool with 5B-65 regulations if not required—and that he’d sleep better without the code.
“It’s a recipe for disaster the way it’s done,” Post said.
Southern Fuelwood was the first license for 5B-65 in Florida, Post said, and the company worked with UF and the state on the parameters. He said Southern Fuelwood has spent millions to get the system where it is.
The site includes water tanks for firefighters to use, and Post said the company is working to hook up a large fire suppression system.
No other company operating under 5B-65 exists in the area, Post said. The result might be the impression that Southern Fuelwood operates recklessly, but he said other firewood providers are known to have lots of fires on location. He said the system at Southern Fuelwood is one of the best there is.
Newberry Fire Department Chief Mike Vogel said the state fire marshal is doing an inspection, but he’s been in contact with Post and plans to sit down with the city manager and building officials to move forward.
“We’re going to look at everything and work as a team and try to come up with some kind of a solution on how we can alleviate [the situation], so we don’t have to go back out there for any more fires,” Vogel said in an interview.
Post said his ears are open for new ideas and he thinks the new suppression system will decrease fires moving forward.
The city of Newberry reported four fire engines, four water tankers, two heavy rescue units and multiple ambulances on the scene. Theus said that’s 25 to 30 firefighters responding for three to four hours in the afternoon heat. The operation pulls units from the entire western half of Alachua County, he said, leaving other areas lacking if another incident occurs.
Theus said the county has no jurisdiction to conduct fire assessments or investigations within Newberry. Theus said, overall, ACFR and the Newberry Fire Department have a good working relationship, and he knows the city fire department also wants to protect its employees.
“This isn’t a jurisdictional border or boundary war between Alachua County and city of Newberry,” Theus said. “This is an identified problem that’s inside the city of Newberry. We are willing to work with the city of Newberry to try to find a better solution on reducing structure fires at this plant and making it more safe to extinguish fires when we’re there.”