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December 16, 2017
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City seeks to increase rate of razing condemned homes

By Tia Lyons
This article was published December 6, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

Razing condemned structures in the city serves as an infill job for the Department of Public Works — which means city crews can’t demolish such structures at a rate they would like.

While members of the El Dorado Fire Department said they would like to offer more assistance in taking down such structures around the city, firefighters said the structures must first pass muster from state’s environmental regulatory agency.

During an El Dorado City Council meeting Nov. 9, Mayor Frank Hash implored the fire department to “do something” to assist the Department of Public Works in ridding the city condemned structures.

At the time, Fire Chief Chad Mosby explained that the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has tightened oversight of such actions.

“It was not uncommon for fire departments to burn dilapidated buildings. When I started in the '90s, we were burning three or four a day, but ADEQ clamped down on it at some point,” Mosby said.

Like the Department of Public Works, the EFD has to apply to the ADEQ for special approval to raze a condemned property, and the fire department has to consider other risk factors in order to use such a property for live-fire training.

Mosby said ADEQ stepped up enforcement of such actions years ago.

“It made us have to jump through more hoops,” Mosby said.

Mosby and Fire Marshal Jason Evans explained that several conditions and standards must be met before the fire department can burn a condemned structure.

They said ADEQ and the National Fire Protection Association sets the standards and regulations, and when the EFD is considering an application to ADEQ, firefighters must first conduct a risk assessment for a property.

For instance, the buildings must be structurally sound, the roof, walls, ceilings, floors must not have any holes, the stairs must be in good condition and the entrances and exits must be clear.

The fire department and Department of Public Works must also file Notices of Intent with ADEQ for asbestos testing and abatement.

“We have to make sure there’s nothing toxic in the house — asbestos or if there are a bunch of paints and chemicals being stored there,” Evans said.

Other factors the fire department must consider are proper ventilation and the proximity of the condemned structures to other houses, buildings, power lines, water sources, vehicles, etc.

Mosby and Evans said it’s often difficult to get approval from ADEQ for live-fire training in populated areas, such as El Dorado city limits.

Evans recalled an instance in which the EFD was considering a condemned property for burning, but the fire department was prohibited because while the condemned structure was free of asbestos, it was too close to a house where asbestos was present.

“A lot of lots are pretty small in town, and they’re close to other structures. The last thing you want to do is damage someone else’s property,” Mosby said.

He said the fire department was liable for damages in one instance in which radiant heat melted the vinyl siding off a house that was next door to a condemned structure that was being used for live-fire training.

“You sometimes damage property in a real fire situation. In an emergency situation, you can expect that, but you don’t want to do it with training,” Evans said.

Air quality and pollution control is another matter with which the EFD has to contend.

Evans and Robert Edmonds, director of public works, said the application process with ADEQ usually takes about 10 days.

“You have to let them know how long you’re going to be at a site, when the waste is going to be cleaned up, who hauling off the waste,” Evans said. “If we don’t follow those guidelines, we could be fined, and those fines can be costly for the city.”

Evans and Mosby said the EFD works closely with Code Enforcement Officer Kirby Craig to find suitable structures for burning.

“Our relationship code enforcement is unique, probably from a lot of other cities because Kirby Craig is retired from the fire department,” Mosby said.

“With him having been involved in fire training as well, he understands the criteria,” the fire chief continued. “He’s proactive. He comes to us and tells us when he’s found a house that he thinks meets the criteria.”

Mosby said the EFD has typically averaged about one or two houses per year for which the department receives approval from ADEQ to use for live-fire training.

He said the department has not received special approval on the action this year because while many houses met ADEQ and NFPA structural criteria, they were too close to other structures to burn.

“Usually when we apply for it, we can get it because we know what we have to have,” Evans said.

For condemned houses that can’t be used for burning, Mosby said the EFD often uses them for other types of training, including forced entry and search and rescue.

Evans said the fire department routinely receives calls from citizens asking if firefighters can burn an abandoned property.

“If we could, we would do routine burnings to help clean up neighborhoods,” added Mosby. “From our standpoint, we would love have plenty of house that we can get approval on from ADEQ because nothing beats live-fire training, not only for new firefighters, but also for older firefighters to reinforce their basic training. We’re the only career fire department in (Union County).”

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

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