Neighbors extinguish fireworks blaze that destroyed 12 evergreen trees

August 5, 2011

By Emily Baer

By the time firefighters arrived at Ted Heng’s house in Park Hill the night of July 4, six neighbors had already extinguished the blaze that destroyed 12 hedgelike trees in Heng’s backyard. The culprit: fireworks, according to Heng.

But what could have resulted in the destruction of a home became an opportunity for an otherwise reserved neighborhood.

Ken Coles, Charles Hu, Ted Heng and Paul Laush (from left) stand in front of trees that were destroyed by fireworks in the fire they helped put out in Heng's yard. Contributed

On his way home from the Lakemont fireworks show, Heng spotted colorful flashes of light coming from the Newcastle area. Upon pulling into his driveway, he realized the display was from three boys with their own fireworks in the street.

Heng said he went upstairs to his room and was about to take a shower when he noticed a bright light coming from the direction of his window. He looked outside to see fire consuming the trees lining the side of his yard near his deck.

Fearing the blaze would jump to a nearby maple and then to his house, Heng said he grabbed his driver’s license, passport, wallet, camera and iPad and quickly backed his car out of the garage. He honked his car horn to alert his neighbors to the fire and called the fire department.

“I had to go back inside and call 911, but I couldn’t get ahold of them the first time,” he said. “I called back and couldn’t get connected several times. When I finally talked to the fire department, they had already received several calls about it.”

Responding to Heng’s honks, six neighbors armed with hoses and tubs of water teamed up with him to extinguish the flames. The parents of the boys who accidentally started the fire acknowledged their sons’ mistake and were part of the effort, Heng said. Soon, the spectacle had garnered a crowd of 30.

Paul Laush said he and his wife, who was celebrating her birthday at their home with friends, heard someone yell, “Fire!” and immediately rushed outside to bang on neighbors’ doors and grab garden hoses.

“We got it under control in what felt like an instant, but it was probably more like 10 minutes,” Laush said.

Heng said firefighters arrived at the scene 10 to 15 minutes after he made his initial call to the station. By that time, the neighborhood had already put out the flames that left 12 of Heng’s hedge trees dead.

Laush said the firemen checked the neighbors’ work and identified hotspots, which they then flushed with water.

The fire department’s report did not detail what firemen did when they found the fire already extinguished. Lt. Troy Donlin, Bellevue Fire Department spokesman, said firemen typically dig up the soil beneath until they reach dirt that has not been charred.

“If the fire got into the ground at all, then fuel is still in the ground and has to be heavily wet down and dug up,” Donlin said. “A bark fire can burn a foot underground.”

Heng called the effort of his neighbors “heroic” and said that if it weren’t for them, “the fire could have spread and it would have been a different outcome.”

Since then, Heng said the teens responsible for the fire have apologized to him and have started replanting new hedge trees to replace those destroyed by the blaze.

“I’m flexible about it,” Heng said. “The dads want their kids to learn from this incident — that they made a mistake. The parents are getting involved and want to teach their kids about responsibility. I’m happy with the young kids.”

Despite the trauma of the fire, Heng said he felt the experience was unifying.

“This fire is the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my neighborhood,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of community or neighbors getting together, but my neighbors did a really great job. This was really awesome and I am so thankful.”

Laush agreed that the event sparked not only a fire, but also a refreshed sense of community.

“Everyone sort of knows each other and waves hi when walking their dogs, but we’ve never really had a get-together,” he said, “This brought a sense of community. Now, people are seeing each other and talking about the story.”

The Bellevue Fire Department did not oversee an investigation of the brushfire because the property damage did not meet a necessary threshold of value in order to do so. They accepted Heng’s explanation that fireworks started the blaze, Donlin said.

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