Lewistown-area blaze shows power of mutual aid, community

lfalce@centredaily.comMarch 31, 2014 

The fire burned through Juniata Terrace, quickly roaring through a row of homes.

The tiny Mifflin County borough outside Lewistown lost home after home — 25 in all and $6 million in damage. According to American Red Cross spokeswoman Kathy Smyser, as much as 10 percent of the municipality’s population was displaced Thursday night. No one was seriously injured.

Though it was not in Centre County, county first responders were there.

Two ladder trucks from Alpha Fire Company in State College joined engines from Undine, Boalsburg and Centre Hall. Later, tanker trucks from Boalsburg, Centre Hall, Gregg Township, Walker Township and Pleasant Gap joined the fray. Firefighters who were called in at 7:16 p.m. didn’t come home until 2:30 a.m. Friday.

Junction Fire Company Chief Scott Beers ran the show, and even he could not estimate how many people from how many companies were on the scene.

“Mutual aid is critically important,” said Alpha Director Steve Bair, who said his people go to other communities or counties about 150 to 200 times a year. For him, the most critical aspect is the warm bodies.

“In the Lewistown case, you’re talking about a block. You’re not just burning through buildings. You’re burning through people,” he said.

During a one-room fire, Bair said he needs about 12 firefighters. In a small company, during the workday, there might not even be that many responders in town, making mutual aid absolutely necessary. At the same time, a firefighter might have only 10 minutes maximum in the blaze, even with a respirator.

Having more people to send into the building to replace that person is just as important.

Hope Fire Company Chief Wes Cartwright said equipment can be just as essential. A company might maintain a tanker, a ladder truck, an engine, but few can afford to duplicate vehicles. Instead, they rely on surrounding communities and return the favor when needed.

In rural locales, water is another factor, Bair said. Extra tanker trucks might be called in just because of how far a fire is from a hydrant.

Mutual aid might really start with the people who come forward in a crisis.

“The community has pulled together greatly,” Beers said.

His fire company is filling with food for the victims, and a building in back is overflowing with clothes and furniture. Restaurants are putting money from checks toward relief, and the Juniata Valley Bank is accepting cash donations.

The Red Cross and United Way are working to find ways for all of the families to move on with their lives, and it isn’t something that ends at the borough line.

“Disaster services are coordinated through the entire region,” said Smyser. “It doesn’t matter where.”

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