2010 in review Guilderland

Volunteer firefighters battle big blazes at hotel, at homes, and in barn

GUILDERLAND — Over 280 volunteer firefighters, belonging to eight different fire departments, battled several big blazes in Guilderland this year.

Of the eight fire departments that provide coverage for the town, five of them — McKownville, Westmere, Guilderland, Guilderland Center, and Fort Hunter — focus solely on Guilderland.

In January, Guilderland, McKownville, Westmere, and Fort Hunter helped battle a house fire on Park Avenue that burned the garage and the second floor, and damaged siding on the house next door.

In June, Guilderland, Guilderland Center, Westmere, McKownville, and Fort Hunter joined with three other departments to contain a fire at the Governor’s Inn and Suites that Donald Gaitor, the Guilderland Fire Department’s Chief, said was like “walking into hell.”

In July, Guilderland Center, Fort Hunter, Guilderland, and McKownville spent over eight hours fighting a fire that totally engulfed a hay barn on Stone Road.

In September, the Guilderland Center Fire Department put out a fire that partially destroyed a house on East Old State Road.

The McKownville, Westmere, and Guilderland firehouses are on Western Avenue, located within a 4.46 mile stretch. The Guilderland Center department is 3.4 miles from the Guilderland department, on School Road off of Route 146; the Fort Hunter firehouse is 3.25 miles from the Guilderland Department, on Carman Road.

The combined budgets for the five departments located solely within the town — excluding the village of Altamont — totals nearly $2.9 million.

The fire departments serve about 30,000 residents, have a total of six firehouses, and two rescue rigs, eight pumper engines, six squad trucks, one engine tanker, one aerial tanker, one brush truck, and one pickup truck with a trailer.

The departments share equipment, according to Don Gaitor, chief of the Guilderland Fire Department. For example, he said, Guilderland has an aerial pumper, which has the ability to send water to heights over 100 feet. Not every department in town has an aerial pumper in its fleet, so if a call comes in to another department, and it is determined that an aerial pumper is necessary, Guilderland can send it out for use.

Not every department has the same equipment, or even the same amount of equipment, because the annual budgets vary widely. McKownville has an annual budget of $233,000, while Westmere has a yearly budget of $860,435. The other departments fall somewhere in between.

The annual budget, paid for largely by taxes, goes toward apparatus, tools, the station building, and the building’s operations, according to John Keimer, commissioner of the Westmere Fire Department.

By state law, towns are not allowed to provide fire protection as a municipal function. Fire protection in Guilderland, outside of Altamont, is provided through fire districts, which are overseen by a board of commissioners, which has the power to levy taxes. Ninety percent of the revenue for fire districts comes from property taxes, according to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness.

If there are extra expenses, the department will hold a fund-raiser; Keimer said Westmere typically holds one major fund-raiser each year to appeal to the residents. The money raised pays for social nights to help build the member camaraderie that is so important.

In some situations, when a fire department has a major project involving hefty funding, a bond will be applied for. A $5.27 firehouse building bond was approved for Westmere in March. The project will result in a 24-cent-per-$1,000 tax increase to residents within the Westmere Fire District boundaries.

Keimer said the biggest reason for the new building is safety, especially in the apparatus room.

Fire departments can also be awarded grants; Westmere was given a $41,000 grant this year to purchase a life safety rope system, an evacuation system which is now required in New York State.

The federal grant was awarded after a highly competitive application process, pitting Westmere against thousands of other applicants.

William Schwartz, first captain of the department, did a study of the buildings in Westmere’s coverage area, which includes part of the University at Albany, and found that several buildings, particularly in McKownville, might require the use of a safety rope system during an emergency.

The grant was awarded to the fire department through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which was created in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorists’ attack, to help firefighters purchase necessary equipment; the grant is one of several administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The house fire at 37 Park Ave. in January was a result of ashes from a wood-burning stove being placed too close to the house, according to Sean Maguire, a member of the Westmere Fire Department who serves as the public information officer of the town of Guilderland Fire Chiefs Association.

The house, belonging to Linda Skipper, and her late husband, Ernest Skipper, sustained damage to the garage and the second floor. Maguire said the assistant chief of the North Bethlehem Fire Department was first on the scene.

“He saw the smoke and called for mutual aid. He was pro-active,” said Maguire. “They began to aggressively attack the fire from the rear of the structure.” He said the fire was under control within 15 minutes.

Ernestine Skipper, a varsity runner for Guilderland High School, ran in the prestigious Dartmouth Relays, two days after her home burned. She ran, with donated gear, on the advice of her father and the support of her team. After the wall of medals on her living-room wall had been reduced to ashes, she won a new medal.

“If somebody has a fire,” she said, “it’s a very tragic thing. You have to keep positive. Good things happen. I never expected people from my school and church and community to help us like they have.”

She concluded, “Always keep your hope high.”

The Governor’s Inn and Suites on Western Avenue went up in flames so big, on a night in June, that they shocked and frightened the chief of the Guilderland Fire Department. He said he knew right away that the fire would require a lot of manpower, so he called a “Signal 30” over the radio, which automatically let other departments know their equipment was needed.

The firefighters used three aerial pumpers to douse the flames from above, after cutting a hole in the roof to ventilate the building. The fire had to be attacked entirely from the outside, because it was too dangerous to enter the building, said Gaitor.

“To walk in when we first got there would have been suicide. It would have been like walking into hell,” Gaitor said. It took about 45 minutes to get the fire under control, he estimated.

“All of the fire departments did what they were trained to do, and worked perfectly together as a team. It was very rewarding to watch everyone work together as one unit for a successful fire attack. It ran like a well-oiled machine,” Gaitor said.

A barn full of hay in rural southern Guilderland caught fire in July, and the flames were so intense they blistered the siding off a house across Stone Road from the barn. It took nine fire departments eight hours to quell the blaze, and it was still puffing the next day.

Since the barn was constructed entirely of wood, and filled with dry hay, the fire spread quickly and generated a lot of heat, said Maguire. The heat was so intense that fire departments could not use the fire hydrant located closest to the barn, said Donald Albright, director of the Guilderland Center Fire Department.

“The air around the hydrant was just too hot and we would have burned up trying to get to it,” Albright said. Maguire said the barn was a complete loss.

A house that went up in flames on East Old State Road in August was not an accident, according to Lieutenant Daniel McNally of the Guilderland Police Department. The house, formerly owned by Joseph DeFaria, went up in flames in the early hours of Aug. 26.

Albright said the second floor was “pretty well involved in the fire and heavily damaged.” McNally told The Enterprise in August that all potential accidental causes — such as faulty electricity or a lightning bolt — had been ruled out.

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