Thursday was a devastating day in Schuylkill County, as a TIMES NEWS headline proclaimed.

Three fires, at various locations throughout the county, erupted within a six hour period, resulting in nine buildings (seven homes) being destroyed, a mother and daughter being killed, and 15 people left homeless.

The chain of events was so spectacular that it attracted news media attention from as far away as Philadelphia.

The first fire was discovered near midnight at a warehouse in Schuylkill Haven. The fire gutted the building and forced the evacuation of a resident living in a trailer next to the property. Fortunately, no one was injured in the blaze, but fire companies from throughout the county responded.

While they were still battling that blaze, emergency crews were called to another large structure fire, at the Blue Mountain Christian Retreat in West Penn Township. That fire was discovered shortly before 3 a.m. and its intensity could be seen from miles around as flames lit up the early morning sky. Destroyed was the main building of the 36-year-old retreat and damage was estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Finally, the last, and the most devastating fire, was discovered shortly before 5:30 a.m. in New Philadelphia. Seven row homes were destroyed and 56-year-old Maureen Wallace, and her 34-year-old daughter, Marietta Wallace, died in the blaze.

The New Philadelphia fire was one of several in recent months in the small community. And many people think all of the fires are the work of an arsonist.

While the three fires all occurred within a 25-mile area, Thursday's fire taxed area volunteer fire companies and rescue areas to the limit. There were firefighters from several departments who responded to all three blazes - some spending 12 to 18 hours on the job. Their efforts were heroic and unselfish. Many missed work that day, while performing their volunteer duties.

In today's economic climate, many communities are looking to cut costs and keep taxes from rising. Unfortunately, in some of those communities, contributions to the local fire companies is one area where community officials are looking to cut back.

Yes, local fire companies have various fund raisers throughout the year to help subsidize their operation. But nowhere do these companies raise enough cash to maintain their operation. In fact, in many communities, contributions are down because residents are tightening their purse strings, dealing with these unsettling times.

If anyone needs a reminder as to the importance of volunteer fire companies, one doesn't have to look any farther than what transpired last Thursday. It was a day of infamy in Schuylkill County, and firefighters and rescue personnel rose to the occasion, just like they always do.

Bob Urban

rurban@tnonline.com