Massive blaze roars through Rockland Township forests


Special thanks to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted


Rockland Lieutenant Kevin Weaver surveys the damages.

Fire burned through several hundred acres of forest in Brandon, Rockland Township, on Tuesday, but firefighters were able to save the many camps and cottages located in the area.

The blaze was still burning at the newspaper's press time early today, and fresh crews had settled in to battle the fire and protect homes through the night.

The fire, which started in Brandon Acres a little after 2 p.m., quickly spread up the river and over the dry brush.

Rockland Fire Chief Wayne Weaver said full crews would return to the blaze in the morning to do battle again.

"We're not done yet. There's parts of the fire we haven't even seen yet," he said late Tuesday.

The chief said he was unsure exactly what started the fire or even where it originated.

"The way the fire burned it jumped so many roads; it's just too early to tell," Weaver said.

The chief said firefighters from most every fire company in Venango County, along with many from Butler and Clarion counties, assisted with the blaze.

Firefighters strapped on tanks and backpacks filled with liquid and traversed the rugged terrain to battle the roaring blaze.

Crews from Stat-MedEvac flew Department of Conservation and Natural Resources personnel over the blaze so they could try and map out a plan to squelch it.

"Sometimes it was total chaos; we had five or six different fire heads at one time," Weaver said.

Weaver commended the efforts of the many firefighters at the scene and said he heard of no injuries.

"Everybody came together and worked like one team," he said.

Brandon resident Jane Clarke said the fire came quite close to her home, which is located on Rails To Trails Drive near the river.

"The fire was huge and frightening. We were pretty concerned for a while, but the fire department was here and they were working hard," she said.

Clarke said she saw flames reach as high as 30 and 40 feet.

"It looked at times like it was a lost cause...The wind just kept on shifting on the poor firefighters. It couldn't decide which way to blow," Clarke said.

Clarke said her son lives on a hill in Sandycreek and could see the fire burning from his vantage point - several miles away.

"I always thought it would be a plus living along the river, but most of the fire trucks don't have pumpers and can't refill from the river," she said.

Clarke said she's seen her share of fires in the 20 years she's lived in Brandon, but nothing like this.

"You just didn't know because the wind was so wild," she said.

Clarke's neighbor, Joe Rysinski, said the flames came within a few hundred yards of his residence, but fortunately the wind was blowing away from his property.

"It burned up some of the waterlines and got pretty close to some of the camps, but from what I know it didn't burn any camps," he said.

Rysinski said he saw helicopters flying overhead and airplanes dropping red liquid onto the flames.

Other neighbors could be seen spraying their lawns with garden hoses in an effort to keep the blaze from their property.

Clarke credited the effort of the many firemen called to battle the stubborn blaze.

"They did an outstanding job and they deserve a lot of credit," she said.

Because of the danger, camp and property owners were stopped from getting back to their cottages in Brandon.

Longtime camp owner Marlene Cheslock and her husband waited anxiously Tuesday evening to hear news about their camp on Rock Bass Drive and to learn if their elderly neighbors were safe.

The couple had driven from their home in New Castle when they heard of the fire.

"It's just so nerve-racking. They won't let up past the pavement," she said, referring to the long dirt road that leads to the river.

The Cheslocks have had a camp by the river since 1958 and have already seen it destroyed by fire once. That was in 1972. They decided to rebuild the camp after it was lit by arsonists, she said.

"I just don't want to go through that again," she said.

Cheslock said she was particularly worried that one of her neighbors who has trouble walking might get stuck in his camp.

Fire crews plan to return to the area this morning with backhoes and fire equipment to extinguish the remaining blaze.