Fire officials: Well-intending neighbors fueled house fire

Fire officials in Ladonia said today that well-intending neighbors did more harm than good when they sought to contain a kitchen blaze before firefighters arrived at the scene.

The fire, which started after 5 p.m. Thursday, engulfed two duplexes off Dolphin Drive in Phenix City's police jurisdiction and displaced four families. More than two dozen volunteer firefighters from four departments battled the blaze for hours.

Lt. Robert Bowman of the Ladonia Volunteer Fire Department said neighbors who were concerned about the fire spreading took a garden hose and began spraying water at the fire. But when the door of the residence opened, he said, the fire was fed the oxygen it needed to flourish.

"If there’s a house on fire, the community does not need to open the door," Bowman said in an interview. "The fire went from being this little, itty-bitty fire on the stove to the whole house (being) on fire by the time we got here.”

Barbara Ginther, who lived two doors down from the origin of the fire, said she and her husband will have to find a new place to live. They had no insurance and lost many of their belongings, she said.

Ginther's daughter had alerted her to black smoke rising from her neighbor's home. “We go to the kitchen window and we could see the flames," she recalled. "It was already melting the refrigerator handle.”

"We had the water hose because it was starting to burn the grass," Ginther added. "We tried to keep our place safe."

The location of Ginther's home, off Opelika Road near the Russell-Lee county border, appears to have complicated emergency response. Ginther called the authorities from her cellphone -- like so many people today, she doesn't have a land line -- and was connected to a dispatcher in Opelika, Ala., some 25 miles away.

Ginther estimated it took half an hour for her jurisdiction to be determined and firefighters to arrive. Chief Thomas Kane of the Ladonia Volunteer Fire Department said his crew made it to the blaze in under 14 minutes.

Firefighters arrived from the Crawford Volunteer Fire Department, Uchee Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Smiths Station Fire & Rescue. In all, Kane said seven engines were on the scene, where officials remained until about 11 p.m.

“It’s a sad day for everybody there,” the chief said, adding the official cause of the fire remains under investigation.

This morning, Ginther's husband was involved in a crash that totaled her vehicle. Ginther said she was later ticketed because the driver of her vehicle didn't have his license. She thinks she'll be able to resolve the matter in court once the driver shows proof of his license, but the $175 fine added insult to injury.

"It’s like why is everything coming down on us?" Ginther said. "We really don't know what to do."

Ginther and the other displaced families are being assisted by the Red Cross.

Bowman and Kane agreed the blaze underscored the perils of untrained neighbors seeking to put out a fire on their own.

“When they walked in and had a house full of smoke, they’re just standing there spraying water wherever," Bowman said, adding firefighters are equipped with gear that allows them to go straight to the source of the flames. "If the door's closed, it's going to smoke and smother itself out."