Fire and Ash Vex Neighbors of Westlake Hills Subdivision

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The burn box at the Westlake site. Photo: Heidi Brown.

Firefighters extinguished a blaze at the new Westlake Hills subdivision Jan. 4 when fierce winds kicked up embers from a burn box at the construction site and set the woods on fire on one of the coldest nights of the new year, officials said.

Although it burned for only 20 minutes and was contained to a couple of trees and dead leaves on less than an acre, neighbors said they feared it could have been much worse if a college student home on winter break hadn’t spotted it.

The fire on the property being developed between the Foxchase and Western Ridge neighborhoods broke out around 11 p.m., when most residents were going to bed. The temperatures outside dipped to the low teens and winds topped 30 mph. Spencer Elliott, a Virginia Tech student whose family lives in Western Ridge, discovered it as he arrived at the family home after spending the evening with friends.

“Just between two of the houses I noticed an orange glow,” he said. “It only took a moment for me to kind of realize at first what it was, but I was in disbelief. Something is on fire!” He ran inside to alert the family and call 911.

Burnt forest floor near Western Ridge. Photo: Heidi Brown.

A firefighting crew from the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department arrived at the scene within five minutes of that first 911 call. It took 20 minutes for the department’s 2500-gallon tanker truck, brush truck and 10 firefighters to put out the fire. The crew was helped by the Virginia Department of Forestry, which sent a bulldozer from its headquarters at Fontaine Research Park.

“There was one tall, 70-foot tree burning and it was not safe to take the tree down at that time, said Shawn Maddox, deputy fire marshal for Albemarle County Fire Rescue. “We didn’t want to use chain saws that night for the safety of our people, the way the wind was blowing. If it had fallen the wrong way . . .”

After the fire was put out, they left one fire marshal behind to monitor the site and make sure the fire didn’t reignite. “It was cold though,” Maddox said. “The water would freeze when it hit the trees. It’s miserable fighting any kind of fire in that kind of weather.” He attributed the fire to “wind that kicked up a couple of loose embers.”

But the owner and president of AG Dillard, the construction company working the site, believes otherwise.

“We have pretty good evidence that our equipment was tampered with,” said Trey Dillard, who assumed control of the company from his father in the beginning of January. “We have surveillance cameras onsite and had some issues with people messing with our equipment. Somebody set that. We are pretty confident that it didn’t come just by the wind blowing across.”

Dillard said he has not shared his suspicions with fire officials. “We were just going to let it go,” he said.

AG Dillard has been preparing a 12-acre site for Stanley Martin Homes in the Westlake Hills development since last September. About 90 single-family homes will be added to the 45 that were being built in the first phase of the project. They denuded the property of the forest that used to stand there. One lone tree remains. The rest form a heap of debris about a football field in length and six feet high. To get rid of the heap, the contractor brought in a burn box, a tractor trailer-size metal container that is used to incinerate the debris.

Burn damage in the woods at Western Ridge, near the Crozet Connector Trail. Photo: Heidi Brown.

Dillard said his company has gone through great expense and great pains to make sure they comply with county ordinances and obtain the proper permits to perform the work. They bought the burn box and an excavator for about $300,000 five years ago. “We’re the only contractor around here that has one,” he said. “We bought it to avoid these very situations. We can burn our clearing debris cleanly and safely.”

The website of the manufacturer, Air Burners, Inc., touts the equipment as the “most economic and environmentally sound solution for eliminating wood and vegetative waste.”

“That burn box cost us a lot of money. It’s really expensive and we’ve had a lot of good luck with it. It’s certified clean burn,” Dillard said. “We try to be good neighbors in everything we do. I’ve hitched our horses up in the (Crozet) parade. Those Clydesdale horses in the parade are mine. We try to be active in the community. That’s why we bought the burn box.

“We’ve been around 52 years and I hope to be around for 52 more. We’re not trying to hurt anyone,” he said.

Maddox, the fire marshal, said AG Dillard “did everything that they were supposed to do.” He said the construction company was not fined, but likely will have to pay for the fire response. “Just like you would if you did a campfire in your yard and it got out of control. They will reimburse the county for fire suppression and the Forestry Department for the cost of the bulldozer and the operator.” He estimated the cost to be about $3,000.

The January fire was only the latest and most serious of a number of concerns raised by Western Ridge neighbors. On a recent day, small flakes floated down through the air, coating cars, trampolines, deck furniture and anything exposed outside with a fine film of gray ash. They are convinced the ash is coming from the new development.

“A couple of times we were walking to the pool and it was almost like it was snowing,” said Sherry Wegner, a mother of three who lives on Clearfields Court. “We have a German shepherd and we keep a water bowl out there. We’d fill the water bowl in the morning and a few hours later it would have ash floating in it.”

She said she worries about the long-term health effects on the children in the neighborhood. Parents were keeping their kids indoors because of the choking smell of smoke in the air. “And when they’d go out on the trampoline to play, they’d be covered in black,” she said.

The neighbors began comparing notes and decided to complain. “The first round was when we all called the fire marshal,” Wegner said. “We all got the same response. They are doing everything up to code; not doing anything illegal.” The residents were advised to bring their concerns to the county Board of Supervisors. They just missed the January meeting.

Cathy Loman, another Western Ridge resident, said she called Supervisors chairman Ann Mallek, who “was very concerned about the process that’s being followed and will look into it.”

Mallek said she has received several complaints, each representing “lots of neighbors.”

“They’re concerned about the burning of construction debris,” she said. This isn’t a new issue. “We had difficulty with flying ash several years ago” with a different company at a different construction site. “This is getting old. They are following the rules, which means we’re going to have to have our rules changed.” The fire marshal will be offering some options for changes to the fire burning law at the Board of Supervisors meetings in March, Mallek said.

Dillard said he has received only one complaint from neighbors about the ash. “I’m not sure where the ash came from, but it doesn’t come from the box,” he said. “You have to clean it periodically. You’ll get some dusting then. That’s probably what’s happening.” The company’s latest permit was issued Dec. 4 and was set to expire at midnight on Feb. 3.

As for the neighbors, “I’m glad they’re trying to take the measures to do this correctly,” Wegner said. “But you want to have a good reputation in the community so I hope they take our concerns to heart and consider doing it a different way. I would hope that after February 4 they are done, or they reconsider if enough of us complain.”

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