Firefighters work to contain a brush fire off Hugh Cox Road in Gray on Friday afternoon.Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press
Some Washington County volunteer firefighters showed they weren’t afraid to do some dirty work after they responded to the scene of a fire that had already burned through around 50 portable toilets.
On Friday afternoon, members of the Gray and Sulphur Springs volunteer fire departments battled a blaze that began at Don’s John’s — a port-a-john company — at 207 Hugh Cox Drive in Gray.
SSVFD firefighter Keith Ellis said the fire began while some of the employees were working behind the facility, near an area where older port-a-johns were stored, before the fire began.
“Next thing they knew, they caught the brush on fire, and the brush caught all the Fiberglas port-a-johns on fire,” Ellis said. “It just spread from there.”
The fire spread across approximately one acre of land behind the business, which was occupied by trees, power lines, brush and approximately 50 old port-a-johns.
“The plume of smoke was pretty massive,” Ellis said. “They were getting calls on it from as far as Erwin.”
In addition to the fire itself, the port-a-johns presented another problem in that they were comprised of Fiberglas.
“It’s not that much more flammable, but it’s carbon fiber,” Ellis said. “It’s just like the insulation that you put in your home. So you’ve got all those Fiberglas particles in the air.”
Though firefighters spent approximately three hours battling the blaze, Ellis said luck may have factored into their ultimate success. Ellis said the burning Fiberglas also produced hydrocarbon emissions. In fact, had the weather been more windy, he said an evacuation may have been in order for some nearby residents because of those hydrocarbon emissions.
“We got extremely lucky that we had very little wind,” Ellis said. “If we had a lot of wind, it would have laid all that hydrocarbon down in the valley and we would have had to evacuate all those homes. That’s how much hydrocarbon we had going into the air.”
While low wind levels helped keep the fire manageable, Ellis said, firefighters were also able to keep the fire from spreading further by stopping it before it reached a nearby hill containing “approximately 300” additional Fiberglas port-a-johns.
“It was burning toward that when we got the stop,” he said. “Had we not, we would have had a much larger problem.”
Even so, the fire spread so high that nearby treetops were set ablaze and a high-tension power line upright was charred. Ellis said firefighters cut “several” of the trees down and contacted representatives of the Tennessee Valley Authority to inquire about the electricity. No power outage was required, however.
Firefighters spent almost one hour controlling the fire before taking another two hours to extinguish it.