On The Job - Massachusetts: SWI Fires Ignite Across The State

Robert M. Winston covers the line-of-duty death of a deputy fire chief during a campaign to control the spread of a wildfire in western Massachusetts.


The month of April is usually prime wildfire season in Massachusetts. April 8, 1999, started off with abundant sunshine, low relative humidity and a strong westerly wind that gusted to nearly 50 mph throughout the day and into the night. The woodlands were tinder dry from the past winter's freeze...


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5_99_otjmass3.jpg
Photo by Robert M. Winston
Deputy Chief John Murphy of the Russell Volunteer Fire Department died in the line of duty.

Line-Of-Duty Death Occurs

Russell Deputy Chief Murphy was 61 years of age and a 30-year firefighting veteran of the department. He and Dame were appointed to the RVFD at the same time. He was hard at work during this fire fight to help save people, property and the environment from this huge SWI fire. He collapsed at the fire scene, apparently of a heart attack, and died in the line of duty. Two of his sons, William and Kevin, are fire captains and members of the RVFD.

Murphy was employed by the Town of Russell as an electrical lineman. According to Dame, "John was so dedicated to the fire department and to his work as a lineman. He never complained and always wore a smile, even when there was little to smile about. I remember one cold windy morning at about 2 A.M. John was hanging out of the bucket of his bucket truck securing electric lines so the town wouldn't lose its power. He was just smiling, doing his job. He wouldn't quit until he finished the task no matter what the weather conditions were like. He was cool under fire yet, he was a quiet man. John was going to retire, soon. He was my friend and we all will miss him."

Murphy was laid to rest on April 12.

Fire Investigation

Soon after the fire began, two investigators from the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal's Office conducted an exhaustive investigation into the cause and origin of this deadly fire. The investigators worked through the night and into the next day until their investigation was completed.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Russell Fire Chief Richard Dame, left, and Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan announce the official cause-and-origin report regarding the SWI fire in Russell.

The following are excepts from the fire marshal's official press release:

"State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, Russell Fire Chief Richard Dame and Montgomery Fire Chief Frye announced the cause of the fire that took the life of Deputy Fire Chief John Murphy…It was determined that sparks from a rotary-powered hand saw used by Conrail workers to cut a piece of rail traveled 30-40 feet into and ignited dry brush.

"State Fire Marshal Coan said, 'I am calling for a summit meeting with Conrail officials and the fire chiefs in western Massachusetts who have rail lines in their jurisdiction. This incident was a senseless mishap that never should have happened.' Marshal Coan and the local fire chiefs question the actions of Conrail whose rail repair methods include the use of cutting tools that create sparks in conditions such as yesterday's (dry brush, high winds and spring fire season)."

It was reported that 19 wildfires were ignited by railroad workers in this area of western Massachusetts about a week before the major fire incident of April 8.


Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at dfcwins@idt.net