Columbiana recovers from fire – Summer Classics blaze draws wide response

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A massive fire destroyed the Summer Classics furniture factory in Columbiana on Saturday, leaving about 50 employees unsure about work this week and emergency crews reeling from the massive blaze that drew the response of 13 fire departments.

Summer Classics makes garden furniture and fireside accessories.

The Columbiana Volunteer Fire Department made an Emergency-911 call at 7:57 a.m. Saturday.

Firefighters from the Columbiana department responded first, along with the Columbiana Police Department and the Regional Paramedic Service.

The E911 dispatcher notified other agencies as the fire progressed.

Johnny Howard, chief of the Columbiana VFD, said he expected something similar to an office fire when he first arrived before 8 a.m.

&uot;Within a few minutes, it escalated into a complete industrial fire,&uot; he said.

Columbiana Mayor Allan Lowe said Monday he was grateful that nobody suffered serious injuries during the blaze and that buildings adjacent to the factory were spared. He thanked the estimated 100 firefighters, paramedics and volunteers that tended to the blaze.

Lowe described the scene when he arrived at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday. He said the fire was still escalating when he got to the factory, located about one block from the Shelby County Courthouse.

&uot;It was mostly black, billowing smoke,&uot; Lowe said. &uot;It was causing firefighters some problems because they couldn’t see.&uot;

By 9:30 a.m., Lowe said about nine separate fire departments were on the scene.

In all, 13 fire departments responded, along with the Regional Paramedic Service, Southeast Shelby Rescue, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, the Columbiana Police Department, the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, the Columbiana Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and countless volunteers.

While Johnny Howard, chief of the Columbiana Fire Department, organized firefighters, Lowe and Columbiana Emergency Coordinator Tim Billingsley organized other responders.

Lowe said Saturday’s fire tested the city’s emergency response. The Columbiana City Council created the emergency coordinator’s position in case of emergencies of such a large scale.

&uot;This was the first time we had to do this,&uot; Lowe said. &uot;We had that command structure in place to handle something of this scale.&uot;

The Columbiana Water Board quickly responded on Saturday and turned on several water pumps for extra hydrant flow, Lowe said. Also, crews shut down the air handlers on county buildings to prevent smoke damage.

County Manager Alex Dudchock said the county’s responders worked well together.

&uot;All the mutual aid agreements worked,&uot; he said.

A warehouse adjacent to the Summer Classics facility housed an estimated 18,000 tires, but crews managed to stave off the blaze before it ignited.

&uot;If that would have ignited, we would have had a problem,&uot; Dudchock said.

Wilsonville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Davy Edwards said his department worked on the backside of the fire off of Walton Street. He said crews worked to keep the fire from spreading to two separate warehouses.

Edwards said he stepped in when Jerry Lamb, Assistant Chief of the Columbiana Fire Department, had to go to the hospital. Four Columbiana firefighters and others were transported to the hospital and treated for dehydration.

Saturday’s fire was one of the biggest Edwards said he has ever seen. In 1991, a massive blaze struck Alabama Power’s Gaston Steam Plant in Wilsonville. Edwards thinks Saturday’s fire was about as big.

&uot;It was very hot. This was the biggest fire I’ve ever been to except for the steam plant fire,&uot; he said. &uot;This was different. It was more contained, but it was bigger in some ways.&uot;

Lowe complimented the responders and remarked on the level of cooperation and communication while various agencies fought the blaze.

&uot;It was a very concerted, very professional response,&uot; he said.

In particular, Lowe thanked the Piggly Wiggly in Columbiana, which donated water, juice and snacks to exhausted firefighters throughout the day. Others showed up with coolers and cases of Gatorade.

Lowe said that firefighters drank the cold drinks as quickly as they arrived.

&uot;Who knows where they got all those coolers from?&uot; Lowe said. &uot;They will be in the city’s gratitude for a long time.&uot;

By 1 p.m.,

the orange flames subsided and white smoke hovered above downtown Columbiana. Some local businesses and residents were evacuated initially.

Five ladder trucks sprayed water from above the building, and a fuel truck from the county re-fueled fire trucks that ran out of diesel fuel throughout the day.

On Monday, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked the scene in Columbiana, along with the state Fire Marshall’s office. Heavy equipment from the county moved pieces of scorched equipment from the factory site, and a mobile lab assessed pieces from inside the building.

Saturday’s fire consumed an out-of-state furniture order from Summer Classics, along with winter season and discontinued inventory.

Bew White, president of Summer Classics, said things could be worse for his company. The company’s cushion factory was spared, along with four of the company’s five facilities.

&uot;We were very fortunate that no one was hurt and the fire didn’t destroy any manufacturing facilities. Since the peak season of our Winter Classics inventory comes later in the year, we’ll have time to remake the lost inventory and still make our early buy shipments in August,&uot; he said.

Last year, the company relocated its distribution and administrative operations from Columbiana to its facility just outside of Montevallo, where the current, in-season garden furniture inventory is warehoused.

Summer Classics representatives estimated that smoke damage to the company’s cushion factory in Columbiana could delay operations by three to seven days.

Dudchock met with officials from Summer Classics on Monday. He said the company may move its sewing operation, which was housed in the Columbiana building but was not destroyed, to the company’s facility near Montevallo. The approximately 50 employees who worked at the Columbiana building may also move to the Montevallo facility.

There were no details of estimated value from Saturday’s fire, or about what caused the fire.