A Wednesday home fire in Appling near the J. Strom Thurmond Dam was the first large structure fire that Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue responded to in the former North Columbia Fire and Rescue district after beginning service to that area Dec. 31.
The mobile home, barn and chicken coop on Linder McCurdy Road, owned by former North Columbia volunteer firefighter Craig Steedley, was a total loss. No one was injured in the blaze, which was reported at about 3:30 p.m.
The outcome was one former North Columbia Chief Tom McFarland said he and his volunteers were worried about with Martinez-Columbia fire stations more than five miles away from many homes along the lake and Winfield areas.
"I'm hoping like heck we don't lose any more out here," McFarland said. "Martinez did the best they could with what they have. They are stretched like a rubber band, not because of anybody's incompetence or anything. They just have got a whole lot more than they can say grace over."
Before the fire, Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper said, the first few days of his department providing service to the Appling, Leah, Winfield and Grovetown areas from five new stations was routine. Martinez-Columbia took over the new areas as part of a change that included it expanding its coverage to the entire unincorporated area of the county.
"It went real good," Cooper said, adding that the firefighters in the five stations recently staffed by Martinez-Columbia spent the first few days driving around their districts, checking fire hydrants and giving out smoke detectors.
"Well, they are training the new guys," Cooper said. "We've got some guys that have come from other departments and we're training them to work the way we work, knowing where water sources are and things like that."
Of Martinez-Columbia's five new stations, one on Louisville Road, previously manned by Grovetown firefighters during the day, and a former North Columbia station in Phinizy are now staffed around the clock.
Martinez-Columbia also took over operation of new stations on White Road near Harlem, Columbia Road near the jail and on Winfield Road. The White Road and Columbia Road stations are day-time staffed while the Winfield station is equipped but not staffed. A 14th station to be equipped but not yet staffed is planned for a site at the Clarks Hill Water Plant.
The change also included termination of a contract for North Columbia to provide fire service to much of the county's rural area.
North Columbia agreed to give the county 10 fire trucks, a more than $300,000 debt for some of the trucks and a lease for two North Columbia fire station properties.
The trucks that would have been given to the county, McFarland said, are worth more than $470,000, but county officials would have had to repay the department's $311,000 debt.
"It was a heck of a deal," McFarland said.
County officials denied the request to lease the land.
When an impasse was reached between fire department and county officials, other locations were chosen for Martinez-Columbia to operate from.
McFarland said his concerns include nighttime manpower because the only rural station staffed around the clock in the former North Columbia District is a Phinizy station. Two men and a truck won't be able to handle a large-scale disaster, McFarland said.
"If this (Steedley home) fire had happened at night, they'd be in a lot worse shape than they were in," McFarland said, adding that the first fire truck to arrive at the scene came from nearly 10 miles away at the Phinizy station.
In a year or so, when more stations are manned at night and the trained volunteer force has grown, McFarland said, Martinez-Columbia will be able to easily handle the area.
Having one department covering most of the unincorporated areas, except a small area near Grovetown that the city protects on a pay-per-call basis, is much simpler with one dispatcher and easy budgeting, said Pam Tucker, the county's Emergency Services division director.
"It is a tremendous load that will be taken off the county staff as well," Tucker said. "One budget, one fire department. It streamlines everything."
McFarland, who said he's gotten lots of complaints and concerns from residents in his former fire district, said fire service in the former North Columbia district would have immediately been better had the negotiations been more amicable.
"It's a situation if there had been a true merger, all of our volunteers and equipment merged with (Martinez-Columbia), it would have been far better service than we had before," McFarland said. "It'll take awhile, but they'll get there."
Tucker said the Grovetown department, which, she said, has been great through the change, and Martinez-Columbia deserve a lot of credit.
"They (Martinez-Columbia) make it look easy ...," Tucker said. "It was a big undertaking for them. Sometimes they make it look easy. They don't get all the credit they deserve for a tremendous amount of work."
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