Another disastrous fire in Belleville’s Silver Lake section has sparked cries for restoration of the Franklin St. firehouse which has been shuttered for about two and a half years.
Earlier this year, the Township Council had authorized bonding for about $250,000 in repairs to the tiny fire station but, so far, has not proceeded to put the project out to bid.
Meanwhile, the community is still reeling from the aftermath of a 4-alarm blaze which, fire officials said, erupted shortly after 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, on the second floor of a two-story residential building at 63 Heckel St. That fire came only a few days after a 3-alarmer destroyed a nearby Belmont Ave. residence. Causes of both fires remain under investigation.
Battalion Chief Rich Cavanagh, commander at the Heckel fire, told The Observer that, “upon arrival of our first units responding, there were flames in the back corner of the building and smoke pushing from the whole roof line.”
So intense was the blaze, he said, that “about 30 minutes into the fire, the roof caved in.”
That, in turn, led to “exposure to 61 Heckel” and a lot of water damage to the interior of that three-family residential structure where one tenant said she was glued to the TV, watching a middleweight boxing match replay, when people outside started shouting that the house was on fire.
“Smoke started filling the place and, soon after, the cops chased us out,” she said.
Two Rottweillers and four cats were rescued but “everything else in the house is gone,” she said.
Altogether, between the two buildings, seven adults were displaced, according to Cavanagh. The Red Cross was on the scene to assist in providing temporary shelters, he said.
More than 40 firefighters from Belleville, Newark, Bloomfield, North Arlington, Montclair, West Orange and Cedar Grove battled the stubborn blaze while fire units from Kearny, Nutley, Millburn and Maplewood stood by at local fire stations. It took several hours to finally knock down the fire, Cavanagh said.
Fire inspectors later posted a notice on the buildings declaring they were uninhabitable.
At last Tuesday’s municipal meeting, resident Patricia Yuksel, a neighbor of the fire scene, told the governing body that she was working in the yard and that, after someone from the street yelled there was a fire in the house, she called 911 on her cellular phone only to be told by the party on the other end that she had reached Newark 911.
“She told me to hang up and to call my town,” Yuksel said.
Efforts to reach a media spokesman for the Newark public safety director’s office about the 911 incident were unsuccessful last week.
(That section of Heckel is only a block or so removed from Newark’s North Ward and Newark furnishes water to a number of property owners in Silver Lake and that applies to hydrants as well. Some residents griped that because one hydrant near the fire scene was faulty, firefighters had to drag hose to a hydrant at Bloomfield Ave. and hook up there.)
Meanwhile, Township Fire Chief Robert Caruso told the council that he needed “$2.5 million to $4 million” to create more space for fire vehicles and EMS equipment at the Washington and Franklin Aves. fire stations and for “upgrades” at HQ.
As for the Silver Lake fire- house, Caruso said that while, “certainly, at the top of my list” is providing an adequate response to fires in that district, the existing building is “undersized and not capable of delivering” a proper response to residents.
Still, the chief added, the fact that the Silver Lake engine company has been relocated to the Franklin Ave. firehouse is “not the primary cause for the significant damage” to the recent Belmont Ave. and Heckel St. properties. In both cases, he said, “the fires were well advanced when firefighters got there.”
“My number one concern is protecting life safety,” Caruso said, “and we are still capable of providing excellent service to that [Silver Lake] district.” In the 13 building fires that the BFD has tackled since January 2014, he said that the first arriving firefighters got to the scene within four minutes at 11 fires and in five minutes at the other two, which, he said, means that the BFD is “meeting industry standards 85% of the time. That’s not perfect but it’s not unreasonable. And we have not seen any serious civilian injuries.” On the other hand, Caruso conceded that the township’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating is below par. The future of fire protection in Silver Lake? “We’re looking at all options,” he said.
Given that Franklin St. “is one of the busiest streets in the district, that compromises our vehicle going in and out of the building [and] puts our firefighters – and residents – at risk,” Caruso said. For that reason, he said, “we are looking for better alternatives.”
One such alternative that township officials have mentioned is construction of a two-bay firehouse on one acre of the former Roche property, near the Franklin Ave./Mill St. location, which the property redeveloper, Tulfra Realty, has offered to finance.
First Ward Councilwoman Marie Strumolo Burke said she wants something done now, whether that means fixing up the existing firehouse or providing a new one “in Silver Lake,” because “we need this as soon as possible.”
Councilman-at-large Kevin Kennedy scoffed at the notion of putting the Silver Lake firehouse back on line. “It’s a rat hole. You’re not going to find a [fire] truck that fits in there.” Caruso said there is one rig that can adjust to the space but added that the building’s “roof needs repair and everything below.”
Asked by Mayor Ray Kimble whether the BFD has sufficient personnel to staff the facility “if we agreed to [fix it] tomorrow,” Caruso hedged, saying: “That’s another discussion.”
Cavanagh, speaking as president of FMBA Local 229, urged the governing body to consider raising the mandated minimum per shift to “12 or 13” from the current 11. “When we’re down to 11,” he said, “we lose the engine that starts the process of water suppression and the ladder becomes the engine and that throws us off.” And FMBA state delegate Firefighter Dave Lelinho added: “A fire doubles in size every 60 seconds so getting the Silver Lake house open should be paramount.”
After saying that it was “the council’s decision” whether or not to restore the Silver Lake firehouse, Kimble pledged to “put up a bond ordinance for $4 million” at a future meeting but whether there was consensus around restoring the Silver Lake firehouse was left unclear.