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Opelika fire chief recalls his first thought when he saw the downtown blaze on July 21

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Opelika Fire Chief Shane Boyd said that when he arrived on the scene of the downtown fire on July 21, his first thoughts were to save as many downtown structures as possible.

“After rescue, our next most important thing is exposure,” Boyd said. “A fire downtown, that’s as bad as it gets.”

Boyd and his department, along with the Auburn Fire Department, Lee County Emergency Management Agency, Opelika Police Department and Opelika Public Works, were honored for their response to the early morning fire at Maffia's Italian Restaurant.  

Boyd said there are always buildings that firemen drive by and hope that they never catch on fire.

“Downtown Opelika is that spot for us,” he said.

The buildings in downtown Opelika are over 100 years old and were built with hard pine and heavy timber.

After battling the fire for several hours, Boyd said, they used a tractor provided by Mike Hilyer director of Public Works, to clear out the space. The entire process from responding to the call to hauling away the debris took about 12 hours.

Boyd said the reason he decided to clean up the area the way they did and as quickly as they did is because of how hot the fire was and how long it was burning.

“Here’s the dilemma: when you’re spraying a fire to put it out, you have to get to the base of the fire,” he said. “Well, this thing had two roofs and they both collapsed inside, so the seed of the fire was down deep in the rubble in between two over-120-year-old walls.”

Boyd said the building was exposed to 800-to-1,000 degree heat for more than five hours and had about 900,000 gallons of water sprayed on top of it. Without the help from Auburn’s Fire Department, Boyd doesn’t think they would have had enough water.

No matter what, Boyd said the Maffia’s building was going to be a “total loss,” so his next decision was to either bring in heavy equipment to pull out the debris and prevent more buildings from burning or to put his firefighters in the middle of it.

After evaluating the risks, including the instability of the walls on each side and the likelihood of a collapse, Boyd said he didn’t want to put his firefighters in that situation.

Boyd said his natural assumption is that the fire started in the kitchen area of the restaurant because the temperatures increased in that area, but there’s no way to confirm it.

He said a call from a citizen who had noticed smoke was the key to responding quickly to the fire.

“Because they called as soon as they did and because of the proximity to downtown, I think our guys were on the scene in a minute and 40 seconds, which makes all the difference in the world,” Boyd said.

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