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One good thing about a rainy spring

Published May 07. 2011 09:00AM

Rory Koons remembers very vividly that spring day in 1986. Unlike this spring when hardly a day went by without rain, the April 25 years ago was very dry. Brush fires were breaking out everywhere.

The worst of these was to occur on cinco de mayo - the fifth of May - that year.

It was one of the most destructive forest fires in decades in Carbon County, consuming a 10-square mile area. Miraculous, no homes were destroyed and no lives were lost thanks to the determination of scores of firefighters. But there were plenty of close calls.

One firefighter was overcome by smoke and required hospitalization for several days.

Koons was chief of the Aquashicola Fire Company at the time. He was working for Carbonaire Corp. on Delaware Avenue.

May 5 was a fairly warm day - in the 80s - with low humidity and some moderate wind; perfect ingredients for brush fires. At about 1:45 p.m., the fire alarm sounded. Even before he walked out the door, he saw the location of the fire. Heavy black smoke was rising to the clouds from an area near the Blue Ridge Country Club.

There had been a number of brush fires in this area in the early to mid 80s. An arsonist was running around setting the fires, said Koons. No arrest was ever made.

The dry weather meant the underbrush was great tinder for forest fires and this May 5 blaze was the epitome of the havoc such a fire can inflict. The rugged terrain posed complicated the matter.

A total of 34 fire companies sent members to help battle the fire. About 20 houses were evacuated.

"This is small scale compared to the fires they have out West," said Koons, but it was still quite an experience.

He recalls two serious incidents that occurred:

• His brother, Gary Koons, and Palmerton Fire Department member Barry Scherer got caught in a firestorm. They escaped by leaping into a pond as the flames raced past them.

• At one point, Rory Koons was in a brush truck with other fire personnel. "There was so much smoke it literally stalled the engine," he said. "It burned the wiring and hoses on the truck."

Koons thought they might have to abandon and lose the vehicle. Somehow, it started and the firefighters were able to escape in it.

"It miraculously started," said Koons. I don't know how it started but it did."

Smoke from the fire could be seen from as far as Hazleton and Allentown.

The fire had its start in the vicinity of the Knights of Columbus building. It traveled east almost to Hahn's Dairy Road.

Houses were threatened but firefighters stood their ground. There were some smaller sheds lost. A pump house at the Blue Ridge Country Club burned, a loss of about $10,000 to the club.

The fire burned for two days and totally blackened most of the forestland in its path.

Albert Serass, a Christmas tree grower, lost 12,000 of his trees in the conflagration.

Mother Nature, though, has proven to be forgiving.

Koons said Boy Scouts did a lot of revegetating, including planting trees. An environmental group also assisted with the restoration.

"It came back quite well," Koons said of the ravaged area.

Koons was fire chief in Lower Towamensing Township for 20 years. He said that was the most devastating fire during his tenure.

One thing for which Koons was grateful happened right after the fire. Dr. Louis Sportelli, a chiropractor in Palmerton, began a fund-raising campaign to raise money for the fire departments involved in battling that huge May 5 fire. Raised during the six-week drive was $17,036, which was split among the 34 departments.

Old-timers recall some very bad forest fires in Carbon County. They talk about one in the late 60's that burned from Stoney Creek Hotel along Route 903 in Kidder Township to Route 15. Then there was a fire they say burned from Weatherly to Freeland.

Koons said this year there have been virtually no brush fires as a result of the wet weather. Usually the forest fire season continues until mid-May, but this year it fortunately never even began.

Because of so much moisture, trees are already budding and vegetation is greening, two things that diminish brush fire velocity.

"I guess this rainy weather has some good to it," he said.

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