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WATER VALLEY – A severe storm that tracked across the county Saturday evening spawned intense lightning that could be the culprit in the ignition of a massive warehouse fire in Water Valley. Dozens of firefighters from across Yalobusha and neighboring counties battled the blaze at WareHouse 72 in the W.C. Gardiner Industrial Park until the early morning hours Sunday, but the building and contents were a complete loss.
Water Valley Fire Chief Mark McGavock responded from his residence and was one of the first firemen on the scene after the fire was dispatched at 7:32 p.m. The chief said he immediately instructed dispatchers to contact both the Batesville and Oxford fire departments for ladder trucks, explaining that the 56,000 square-foot building was one of the larger structures in the city.
McGavock reported the cause of the fire remains under investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, but it appears very likely that it was started by one or more lightning strikes. The fire chief reported radar indicated that the storm cell that passed over the city was the most severe storm in the state at that time.
“The lightning was just hitting everywhere,” McGavock told the Herald. “I was sitting on my back porch watching the storm.”
McGavock also said video from a security camera at an adjacent building appeared to show multiple lightning strikes hit the warehouse.
“You could actually see it, you can’t get any better than that,” the chief said about determining the cause of fire. “There is absolutely no indication of foul play,” the chief added.
Water Valley Mayor Donald Gray reported lightning from the same storm damaged equipment at one of the city’s water wells.
“The lightning was the worst I have seen in a long time, it jarred houses,” Gray added.
A Head Start
McGavock estimated that the fire had almost a two-hour head start from when the lightning appeared to strike the building before it was discovered. He believes that the low hanging clouds made it difficult for passers-by to distinguish the gray smoke that slowly appeared over the building.
“When I got there, the building was completely full of smoke. You could tell it was burning in about 10,000 square-feet in the southwest portion of the building,” McGavock added. The chief also said a 20-foot roll-up door was blown completely off the building, either from the intensity of a lightning strike or from the fire. Firefighters initially tried to attack the blaze from the opposite side of the fire, but had to pull back after materials stacked on huge shelves that were five rows high started falling.
“It sounded like bells ringing in there,” McGavock explained about the metal automotive components that were hitting the floor. With smoke completely hindering visibility, he said it was difficult for firemen equipped with air packs to navigate around the shelves in the building to get to the blaze.
“You would have to know the layout of the building, and even then it was difficult because it would take so much hose,” McGavock explained.
The firefighters were pulled out of the building and the chief said the next option was to penetrate a portion of the metal exterior wall to get water inside the building. A nearby trackhoe was ready to peel back the metal as the Batesville ladder truck arrived on the scene, and they were able to get water on the blaze.
McGavock said it briefly appeared that they were going to get the fire under control. The firefighters’ efforts were curtailed again, as the hole created with the trackhoe also allowed the fire to vent, and it started spreading through the interior of the building.
“We were behind the eight-ball when we got there, the fire had too much of a head start,” the chief reiterated.
Both the fire chief and mayor expressed thanks for the strong turnout to help battle the blaze.
“It went perfect, everybody was helping everybody,” McGavock said. He credited the firefighters from across the county, and crews from Batesville, Oxford and Lafayette County for helping the city.
“I think this is the first time we have ever had a Batesville unit provide assistance in Water Valley,” McGavock added.
The lengthy list cited by the two city officials include the county’s EMA directors, EMS, Water Valley Police Department, Water Valley public works departments, the sheriff’s department, the Batesville Fire Department, Oxford Fire Department and Lafayette County firefighters.
“Everybody was there and doing their job, and doing it efficiently,” Gray added. “When you see a firefighter suited up with an oxygen tank come out of a burning building, it’s hard to describe the way it makes you feel.”
“I can’t say enough about all the volunteers, they came here ready to help,” McGavock continued.
Gray said early in the response he reached out to David Floyd, superintendent of the city’s water and sewage department, to monitor the city’s water. Floyd soon discovered the lightning damage and used manual operations to keep the pump running.“David had a long night too,” Gray said.
McGavock estimated the firefighters were using around 1,500 gallons a minute for an extended time during the night, the most usage in a long time.
“We definitely depleted the city’s water system,” the fire chief continued. Even with the effort, he said the ladder trucks from Batesville and Oxford had more capacity than available water. “Everything inside was packaged in wooden boxes or cardboard boxes, the fire spread was just tremendous.”