Two fires in Oktibbeha County that occurred at nearly the same time were both the cause of lightning strikes during a pop-up thunderstorm Thursday morning, according to the local fire departments that responded to the calls. Although no injuries were reported for either fire, both brought unexpected problems for the departments working them.
The Starkville Fire Department responded to a call at the La Quinta Inn and Suites construction site on Highway 12 at around 10 a.m. according to SFD Fire Marshall Stein McMullen. Contractors who saw smoke coming from the building’s roof made the call.
“We noticed there wasn’t any kind of electrical unit in the area that had any fire damage. We had people on the ground that said they pretty much saw lightning strike the building, and some said they felt the jolt,” he said. “Everything is pointing towards lightning.”
McMullen said, when the SFD arrived, the fire was caught between the ceiling and the roof of the stairwell on the north end, and firefighters were unable to see any flames until the fire burned through the structure.
SFD firefighters, who McMullen said got the flames under control in about 10 minutes, were forced to pull sheet rock out of the walls in order to ensure there were no hidden pockets of fire. The fire was under control in about 10 minutes, McMullen said.
McMullen said the roof of the stairwell was pretty much completely burned off, and there is sheet rock damage from the roof all the way to the bottom floor.
“It was difficult to get to because of how high the ceiling was in that room and the fact that there was very little access from outside,” he said.
A five-story building is not something local firefighters are accustomed to dealing with, but McMullen said had it not been for the construction it would have been a much easier job.
“Getting to the main roof, that was easy, but because of the construction we couldn’t get the truck up at right angle to get on top of the little roof where the actual flames were,” he said.
Construction resumed on other areas of the hotel even while fire crews were still on the scene.
On the other side of town at roughly the same time, Central Oktibbeha Fire Department was dealing with their own lightning strike fire at a residence off of New Light Road. OCFD Fire Chief Bennet George said there are no indications of where the lightning struck, but he has a couple guesses.
“It was almost certainly caused by lightning, but we don’t know the exact mechanism yet,” George said. “It may have struck the chimney on the house or it may have traveled down the power lines from a nearby power pole.”
According to George when he first got to the scene he thought the fire would end up being much worse than it turned out.
“When we arrived there was heavy smoke coming from the second floor and it looked like it was going to be a pretty intense fire,” he said “But once we got some firefighters into the attic area we discovered that the fire was confined to a fairly small area right around the chimney we were able to get it under control pretty quickly. The damage didn’t end up being nearly as substantial as I had feared when I first got there.”
George said that with a “working fire” like the one they tackled Thursday, bringing in other fire departments in the area is a necessity, especially during the summer. Three other county fire departments were called to the fire, including Adaton/Self Creek, District 5 and Sturgis, but George said, he also tried to get the SFD to help out.
“We were actually fairly short-handed early on, and my first firefighters were getting worn out so fast.” George said. “I tried to get Starkville to give us some mutual aid too but discovered at the exactly same time they were fighting the hotel fire, so all their resources were tied up and they weren’t able to respond.”
The difficulty, according to George, was a result of the design of the house. He said because of the way the house was built, there were lots of little places for the fire to hide.
Though he has never analyzed the stats regarding the correlation between this time of year and fires caused by lightning, George said there is certainly an increase in the pop-up thunderstorms the area gets. That combined with extended periods of dryness can make for an easy spark.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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