Local and state fire officials are investigating a fire at Murray’s Auto Recycling that ravaged the 55 Hall Road salvage yard last week. A second fire broke out in the auto junkyard a day later.
Londonderry Fire Marshal Brian Johnson and two fire marshals from the state are leading the investigation, and Police Chief William Hart said police are assisting with the investigation where appropriate.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation at press time by the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office, Londonderry Fire and Londonderry Police.
“It’s completely gone,” owner Edward Dudek said of his garage and salvage yard. “We’re just waiting on the insurance and to hear that the investigation is complete. We can’t touch anything because it would jeopardize the claim. Once we get the okay, we can start cleaning up – we’re hoping by (this) week.
The day before the fire, on Jan. 28, the Town filed a petition for injunctive relief against Murray’s in Rockingham Superior Court due to compliance difficulties they have had with the salvage yard.
Town Manager Kevin Smith said Dudek failed to comply with multiple conditions in his license agreement with the Town.
“The petition asked the court to order Dudek to stop what he’s doing and comply with the conditions of his license and give the Town the authority to revoke his license, if necessary,” Code Enforcement Officer Richard Canuel said.
Revoking the license would be a decision of the Town Council.
Additionally, Murray’s recently reached a negotiated agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) related to a lawsuit CLF filed against the auto salvage in 2014 seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to correct Murray’s alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. CLF alleged Dudek Auto has been discharging storm water to wetlands adjoining Little Cohas Brook and has not applied for a stormwater permit for the facility at least since 1998.
The negotiated resolution requires Dudek Auto to develop and regularly update a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP), as well as hire a qualified engineering consultant to develop the SWPPP, to install and implement control measures, to pay five installment payments totaling $23,000 to the New Hampshire Rivers Council for environment restoration of or other benefit to the Merrimack Watershed, and to pay CLF’s legal fees and costs, which total $33,000.
In last week’s fire, firefighters had to overcome significant hurdles to extinguish the blaze that ravaged the property.
The fire burned during the early morning of Thursday, Jan. 29 and into the day, spreading quickly through hundreds of cars at the Hall Road salvage yard.
When crews arrived on the scene a little after midnight, the barn structure used as a garage to service cars was already engulfed in flames, Battalion Chief Mike McQuillen said.
Crews arriving on the scene discovered hydrants in the area were frozen and called three tankers to assist. Realizing it would be more effective to use a static water source nearby, firefighters used chainsaws to cut a hole into the water at Little Cohas Brook and drafted the water out, pumping it to the scene, Battalion Chief Jim Roger said.
In addition to the extremely low temperatures, firefighters overcame challenges related to the unique nature of the property, including the threat of hazardous and highly flammable materials stored in the garage, and access that was limited by hundreds of cars stacked into tall rows packed tightly together on the property.
The fire went to two alarms and firefighters from 10 neighboring communities assisted on the scene, including Litchfield, Windham, Auburn, Bedford, Merrimack, Derry, and Manchester. Salem, Hudson and Nashua assisted with station coverage.
Of the 40 to 50 firefighters at the scene, 21 were Londonderry firefighters.
Generally, the fire department drops staffing down to eight firefighters after 8 p.m.; however, the night of the fire, the stations were fully staffed due to the snowstorm, according to McQuillen.
“Being fully staffed means we are able to pull apparatus and work at full capacity,” he said. “Having one person on the truck to assist in setting up so we can deploy water makes it happen that much quicker.”
“When you drop down to two firefighters at Central Station, there’s an exponential decrease in manpower,” Roger said.
It took a little over an hour for firefighters to bring the blaze under control.
To allow firefighters to get water to the flames, vehicle operators pulled the stacks of smoldering cars apart, some of which had been located up against the rear of the garage.
“It was very labor intensive,” McQuillen said. “There were a lot of car parts, tires, and plastic inside the automobiles. One thing we recognized early on was the need to perform air quality monitoring to make sure firefighters were safe on the scene and that there was no spreading of toxic smoke to residents in the area. Using equipment we were able to purchase through grants, we were able to check the perimeters and make sure the situation wasn’t changing.”
McQuillen said the air toxicity never reached elevated levels that would have been a safety concern for neighbors in the area.
In addition to monitoring air quality, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services was on the scene monitoring the situation and determining if hazardous fluids stored in the garage, such as antifreeze and oil, were running off into the wetlands.
The fire is believed to have originated in the garage workspace on the property. McQuillen said it will be difficult to identify a cause due to the extensive damage caused by the fire.
On Jan. 30 at 1:30 a.m., firefighters responded to a second fire at the salvage yard.
“When we got there, there were three stacks of cars that were burning, about 10 cars per stack. We set up and called for additional tankers. We worked well with the property owner, who provided a loader so we could break up the piles,” Roger said.
The department called to the scene seven tankers from Litchfield, Pelham, Hooksett, Auburn, Windham, and Goffstown. Nashua, Salem and Bedford provided station coverage.
“The night of that fire, we were at a staffing drop-down. It does make a difference. Even one firefighter less responding takes a whole function away from what we’re going to do on the ground,” Roger said.
Roger said nine Londonderry firefighters and 23 firefighters from neighboring communities extinguished the fire by 4 a.m.
“We think it could have been started by some embers from the fire that got back in a rear pile of stacked cars. It was congested in the yard and the cars were stacked closely in the back,” Roger said.
When asked if the auto salvage had violated town ordinances by stacking vehicles on the property so closely together, which contributed to the rapid spread of the fire on the property and made it difficult for firefighters to access, Canuel said stacking the vehicles was permitted.
Despite the hardship Dudek has suffered, he said Murray’s is still open for business.
“We have our inventory of vehicles and parts for sale and we’re still accepting vehicles. We can do everything but process the cars,” he said.