Fire marshal: Blaze started in mulch pile

Damage at medical facility set at $1 million
The morning after the fire, a crew was in place removing debris from the burned-out building. BY RON MACARTHUR
April 29, 2014

A fire that caused $1 million in damage to a Route 24 medical building started in a mulch pile, the chief deputy fire marshal says.

“The investigation determined the origin of the fire to be located on the exterior west end of the building and caused by an accidental mulch fire that rapidly ignited the exterior finish of the structure,” said Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Harry R. Miller.

Heavy winds and dry conditions stoked the fire that engulfed Mid-Atlantic Family Practice in heavy smoke and flames causing $1 million in damages, Miller said. Billowing smoke from the Route 24 building near Long Neck could be seen as far away as Route 1.

Lewes Fire Co. Fire Chief Troy Virden said mulch fires are common, especially when dry windy conditions prevail, as they did April 24. A second mulch fire was reported about an hour after the Route 24 blaze began; firefighters also contained a small fire at PNC Bank on Route 1, he said.

“Mulch is made up of thin, fine pieces of wood that turn into tinder,” he said.

In determining the cause of the fire, Miller said he interviewed several people and reviewed information including a report that a cigarette caused the fire, although he did not cite a cigarette as the cause.

"It's not a cut-and-dried cigarette fire," he said.

The fire started at 3:45 p.m. at the medical building when physician Gregory Bahtiarian said employees saw a pile of mulch on fire.

"We knew something caught fire in a mulch pile. By the time I went out with a fire extinguisher, the whole wall was on fire," Bahtiarian said.

Employee Allison Funds said she was one of the first to see the flames. She said she tried to douse the fire with water, but it spread quickly to the building. When windows started breaking, employees knew the blaze was out of control.

"There was some rumbling going on, and I got on the intercom yelling at the three girls upstairs to get down," she said.

There were about 30 people in the building at the time of the fire – patients in rooms waiting to be seen as well as some in the waiting room, she said.

"I went through twice to make sure there were no patients left," Funds said.

Several tankers arrived at the scene to help extinguish the flames, and a line was run to a nearby retention pond, Miller said. As more firefighters arrived, hoses were run about a quarter mile away to fire hydrants on Route 24, he said.

Staff and patients were safely evacuated; one firefighter was treated at Beebe Healthcare April 24 for what Lewes Fire Company Public Information Officer Glenn Marshall said was a broken foot.

The morning after the fire, crews boarded up windows and salvaged items from the debris. Bahtiarian said as far as equipment, the practice primarily lost computers and servers during the fire, but information is backed up at other locations.

He said the practice that includes Jeffrey J. Heckert, Mark A. Sordi, Carmelo DiSalvo and Cathrine O. DeLuca, nurse practitioner Helen A. Merrick and physician's assistant Aaron R. Block will relocate to Millsboro until they can rebuild at the Route 24 location.

The offices of Mid-Atlantic Family Practice in Millsboro reopened Monday; some staff will work out of that office while others will see patients at a temporary site across the street, Bahtiarian said. Phone lines will be transferred to the Millsboro office so Lewes patients can still use the Lewes office number, he said.

Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company was the first to respond to the scene, quickly joined by Lewes Fire Department and Indian River Volunteer Fire Company as well as Milton Volunteer Fire Department, Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company and Millsboro Fire Company. Also responding were Dagsboro, Bethany Beach, Slaughter Beach, Gumboro and Roxana fire companies. Sussex Emergency Operations Center officials said a total of 15 fire companies were on the scene or on standby for companies that were battling the fire.

Four other fires reported in Sussex

Cape Region emergency responders were put to the test April 24 when a fire obliterated a Route 24 medical facility. But it didn't stop there.

Sussex County Emergency Operations logged in six calls within about an hour of the fire; additionally Lewes Fire Co. had three EMS calls, said Fire Chief Troy Virden.

“We were pretty busy, but we handled every emergency,” he said.

A fire reported at 5 p.m. at the PNC Bank on Route 1 started in mulch, similar to the one that destroyed the Route 24 facility, only it had a better ending.

“One of our fire captains was getting off of work when he heard the dispatch,” Virden said. “He went to the bank and got it under control quickly.”

The PNC mulch fire was small – a 3-by-3 foot patch of material that was brought under control before Ellendale firefighters responded to the scene, Virden said.

At 4:10 p.m., Lewes firefighters also responded to a vehicle fire in Pinetown near Red Mill Pond, Virden said.

Virden did not know what kind of vehicle caught on fire, but he said he believes it had been sitting for some time.

The American Red Cross Delmarva Region said it is helping two people whose Pinetown Road home was damaged by fire. A press release stated the residents were given a safe place to stay, clothing, food and comfort kits. Red Cross spokesman Christine Maiese said she had no further information on the couple.

Other emergency calls about the same the time as the Route 24 fire included a fire in Gumboro and another one in Indian River.

“It was a pretty busy time for awhile,” Virden said.

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