Fires, crashes, and responses to heroin overdoses led to a record year of runs for the Wellington fire department.
A total of 486 runs kept firefighters busy in 2015 in Wellington and surrounding townships.
Personnel put in 5,425 training hours, averaging 169 hours for each of the 32 members. Firefighters also put in 200 hours related to public relations and outreach events.
About $2,500 was raised for Well-Help through a chili cookoff, for which the WFD snagged a first-place prize. As in years past, a full crew of firefighters staffed Salvation Army kettles, helping boost donations past the $20,000 mark.
“We did so much in 2015, a lot of the year ran together,” said fire chief Mike Wetherbee at the firefighters’ annual recognition dinner. “It was one after the other, six or seven or eight calls a day. If we would go a couple days without an incident, we were scratching our heads, wondering what’s going on.”
The largest newsmaking event happened Aug. 4 when firefighters responded to a Brighton Township house fire. After the flames were extinguished, crews found the body of Eric Zaffer inside his Peck Wadsworth home.
Zaffer had been shot prior to the fire and three suspects are now awaiting trial on homicide charges.
Firefighters put in more than 200 hours in the fire and investigation, which produced evidence that will eventually “indict these criminals,” said assistant fire chief Bill Brown. “(WFD crews) put in a lot of time going through ash with sifters and strainers and they should be commended for that,” Brown said.
The summer months were particularly busy: “July and August, we just went crazy. Call number 200 was reached on June 14, for the second year in a row, and by the end of July we were a full month ahead on our call volume,” said Wetherbee.
The year ended 39 calls over a previous all-time record set in 2008.
Unfortunately, 2015 proved deadly on the roadways with nine fatalities. To put it in perspective, Wetherbee said there were only nine fatalities countywide in 2014, compared to a total of 33 last year.
“A lot of our accidents produced multiple fatalities,” he said. “There was one stretch of road we got pretty familiar with.”
The same 300-foot stretch of US 20 pavement in Pittsfield Township accounted for three multiple-vehicle crashes, resulting in three deaths and three patients being airlifted to Cleveland with critical injuries.
“Accidents don’t just happen in the townships. We had a few in the village,” the chief said.
Perhaps the largest fire was on Thanksgiving Eve, when fire crews were preparing for their annual fish fry. Wetherbee got the call at 5:15 p.m. that Carter Lumber, off US 20 near Oberlin, had erupted into a fireball.
“I was just ahead of the engine a little bit and when I saw the glow and smoke from (routes) 303 and 58. I figured right then we weren’t having fish,” Wetherbee said. “I was crushed. I live for our fish fry. It was the first time in 29 years we didn’t have a fish fry.”
The blaze caused $500,000 worth of damage. “The best part of the evening was knowing that our retirees and a good part of Rochester stood by our station in case we had another call in the village,” he said.
Other notable fires included:
• April 10: Firefighters responded to a structure fire in Huntington Township. They had to deploy 1,600 feet of hose by hand because the driveway was unpassable. The property was the scene of a house fire several years earlier, which also destroyed the residence.
• April 17: During a production by the Wellington Drama Club, an electrical issue caused arcing and a minor fire in a large on-stage electrical panel at the old McCormick Middle School’s auditorium. “It was quickly determined this wasn’t part of the production and the auditorium was evacuated properly,” Wetherbee said. The fire was held to the electrical cabinet with minimal damage.
• Several times fire crews responded to incidents on the CSX railroad tracks, including extricating a rail worker who fell from a train on July 2. On Aug. 20, a Wellington youth struck the side of a passing westbound train and died.
• Firefighters also responded to a glider crash Sept. 16 at the Botsford Reading Airport. The pilot walked away uninjured; he’d done the same some years earlier after a crash on the same runway. The gentleman, in his 80s, said he decided twice was enough and was quitting flying.
• Firefighters responded to Penfield Township for a vehicle that left the roadway and was stuck several hundred feet into a field and small ditch, Wetherbee said: “The driver reported that he couldn’t find his ‘crack’ and he was worried that when state troopers got on the scene they were going to whip him good, and please don’t let them ‘beat him up’ when they arrived. It was kind of a weird one… You never know what you’re walking into or what is in the mind of some of these people.”
• Firefighters also responded to several heroin overdoses. “If we’re going to heroin overdoses, there’s a problem because we only respond to assist. And if we’re going to that many overdoses, that’s saying there is a huge problem out there,” the chief said. He praised Wellington police and the South Lorain County Ambulance District for quick response and coordinated service in saving as many people as they did by administering life-saving naloxone.
“You can never get complacent, there is always something new that you’re going to see,” Wetherbee said, summing up the year. “It was a very busy year and hats off to these firefighters and officers for what they do at work, at home and still have time to run to 486 fire calls and still do training.”
Catherine Gabe can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @ReporterGabe on Twitter.
Photo by Catherine Gabe | Wellington Enterprise
“We respond to so many different kinds of calls and there’s something unique about everyone of them,” said fire chief Mike Wetherbee at the WFD’s annual recognition dinner. “When we stop thinking there’s something unique, or it’s just routine, that’s when people start getting hurt.”