ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. - Fire alarms rang out Monday, May 5, 2003 in 94-degree temperatures at 14:52 hours. Fire engines and a ladder company responded from station 2 near the beaches and station 4 at the central island fire station. A second report from dispatch indicated that more than one beach cottage was on fire. An engine company from the North end of St. Simons Island responded as well. While en route to the scene, Deputy Chief Hal Herndon instructed dispatch to notify both the Ballard and St. Simons Island volunteer divisions and off duty on call personnel to respond to the incident. Additional apparatus were called up to respond to the emergency, and to stage in the event of additional fire and EMS calls on the island.
First in engines arrived finding a 67-year-old historic cottage located at 742 Oglethorpe Avenue fully involved. Heavy black smoke and flames made vision difficult. Workers, placing hot tar on the roof, are believed to have caused the fire. The beach cottage, composed mostly of heart pine, and built before building setbacks were in place and enforced was just a couple of feet off the property line. While the recently completed four million dollar high-rise beachfront condominium was within its building setbacks there was only a little over 9 feet between the two structures. To the North and East stand two other expensive residential exposures. With high ocean breezes firefighters knew a major battle was to take place and the heat made the incident that more challenging.
It was evident that the center cottage was lost. Exposures were already blazing. The ladder truck, on location, was deployed and a second ladder tower was called from the mainland to assist. Chief Carl Johnson arrived to assume command. The Glynn County Water Department was notified and directed to increase water pressure in the area to aid in fire suppression operations. The water department responded and activated an emergency pump to increase the water pressure in the area to accommodate the additional strain on the system.
The strong ocean breeze, normally considered a desirable feature along the coast, channeled air between the three and four story buildings like a blast furnace transferring fire and heat to the adjacent structures. This effect of the radiant heat and direct flame transfer was problematic to firefighters due to the close proximity of nearby structures. Firefighters had additional difficulty battling the blaze, as they had to fight from an upwind position. Large crowds of tourists, media, and island residents came to witness the fire firsthand from the beach side and from the road where fire apparatus lined up in full deployment.
Through the course of the afternoon and early evening black smoke could be seen for miles. This attracted spectators from the surrounding area that further choked roads and thoroughfares restricting access to the incident.
The heat also created a major problem for rehab personnel but was quickly solved as neighbors and passer-bys assisted by offering food, drink, and fresh fruit to exhausted firefighters battling the inferno in temperatures that lingered in the mid 90