BETHEL — A third fire over the past six months in the Bethel area has severely damaged a hay shed and its contents owned by Leslie Smathers.
In late December, a barn owned by Joe Kinsland just off Murray Road was burned to the ground at a $13,000 loss, and in January, pallets owned by Zac Guy that were stored near U.S. 276 South were set on fire. No damage amount was listed in the report prepared by the Haywood County Fire Marshal.
When there is no electricity around and no lightning in the area, as was the case for all three fires, investigators often conclude the fire is suspicious and turn the matter over to the sheriff’s office, said Johnny Pless, the fire chief at Center Pigeon Fire Department, which responded to both the Kinsland and Smathers fires.
The Smathers fire on Coffee Branch Road was reported at 2:05 a.m. Thursday and firefighters from Center Pigeon were on the scene by 2:08 a.m. Mutual aid was provided by Cruso, Canton, North Canton, Waynesville and Clyde departments, and the scene wasn’t cleared until nearly 8 a.m. as firefighters strived to extinguish the flames leaping out of burning round bales.
Smathers said he had 80 rolls of hay in the shed, along with his tractor and other equipment. The incident report pegs the damage to the structure contents at $20,000 and estimates the property loss at $10,000.
Smathers was able to drive his tractor out of the burning shed, but one tire was burned and another had to be replaced after it was flattened by the heat.
The tractor still runs, but in addition to the tire damage, the heat broke windows, burned a fender and several lights, just for starters. Smathers said he hasn’t had a chance to check out the mechanical damage to the tractor yet.
“It’s really nasty somebody would do you that way,” Smathers said. “I’m thinking about offering a reward. Somebody knows something and maybe that will make them talk.”
Smathers was full of praise for the firefighters who not only stayed on the scene until the flames died down, but came back anytime he called after the tightly wound bales of hay would reignite.
“They used 100,000 gallons of water on that fire, but not all at once,” Smathers said of the fire that smoldered throughout the Memorial Day weekend.
“I’ve never seen a fire you couldn’t put out,” he added.
Let it burn
By Monday night, Smathers was told the only way to keep the fire from burning the rest of his shed was to move the hay rolls in the middle of a field where they could burn themselves up without damaging surrounding structures.
Neighbor Josh Sorrells lent a helping hand by hauling the smoldering bales away as Center Pigeon Fire Department stood by to give them a final dousing.
“The fire departments and the sheriff’s office have been just super good,” Smathers said, grateful that there is still a portion of the structure that can be salvaged and that the nearby barn was unscathed.
Smathers’ son and grandsons came over from Mars Hill when they heard about the fire.
Aaron Smathers, 13, admitted it was the first fire scene he had experienced.
“It was kind of scary,” he said. “My brother and I had to stay on the road 75 feet away, and my dad went to check the cows. We couldn’t see him in the dark.”
Jared Pless, who works for Center Pigeon Fire Department, was off on Memorial Day, but volunteered to give the bales a last drenching as they were moved out of the shed.
“There’s no conditions where this could be a natural fire,” he said, noting that hay can sometimes combust from the internal heat when the moisture content is too high. But this hay had been in the shed for more than two years, so that wasn’t the case.
“That was my insurance hay,” said Smathers, noting he always had a bit of extra hay stockpiled and that he kept the best hay in the shed while the rest is stored in the field under tarps. “For sure, it could have been worse. I could have lost it all.”