Wednesday June 12, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Fifteen members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department have been suspended for their participation in an event last month in which a camper was set on fire, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

The 15 members of the department all attended the Mudder's Day event hosted by local resident Milo Campbell, on his property off of Overlea Road. The Department of Environmental Conservation within the Agency of Natural Resources is investigating illegal burning without a permit at the event.

"That's what the investigators are looking into," Gary Kessler, director of compliance and enforcement for DEC, confirmed Tuesday.

Pictures posted on social media sites and at least one video posted on YouTube show members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department at the event in fire gear. The video shows firemen in BRFD gear putting out the fire.

The firemen have been suspended while the investigation is pending. The suspensions were handed down at the local level.

"The state doesn't have jurisdiction over local fire departments," Kessler said.

Neither BRFD Fire Chief Shawn Gardner nor BRFD Prudential Committee Chairman Steven Bruso returned multiple phone calls seeking comment.

The suspensions appear to have left the department short on manpower. Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd said Gardner has requested assistance from the Bennington Fire Department while the suspensions are in place.

"The chief has requested assistance through the mutual aid agreement since they my be short-handed at some of their calls," Hurd said.

Campbell received a special event permit from the town for the Mudder's Day event. That permit requires that adequate parking, sanitary facilities and safety precautions be in place. It also requires that emergency and fire personnel be on site for the duration of the event.

A permit to burn the camper was not obtained, however, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.

Permits are required for outdoor burning of wood, Kessler. Burning other material is generally not permitted unless it is a training exercise for a fire department, he said.

"In general terms, if you are burning something other than untreated, unpainted wood, that's not permitted," he said.

Campbell said the camper was completely gutted and filled with hay. A flare was used to start the fire before a car was driven through it as part of the event's "grand finale."

"That's why they're coming down on the firemen, because of the flare and the accelerant," Campbell said.

The firemen on scene put the fire out after the stunt. However, Campbell declined to say who actually ignited it. "I'm not going to comment on that," he said.

Similar burns have taken place at the event in the previous six years it has been held, according to Campbell. He said he was not aware a permit was required, and town and state officials have not raised the issue prior to this year.

"Never, never knew it. I have been doing stunts on that property since the day that I started. I always do a grand finale," he said.

Kessler said Tuesday that he was unsure how the investigation was triggered. It most likely arose from an anonymous complaint, he said.

"We get a lot of complaints that come in. People can send them in electronically, people can call us," he said. "My suspicion is that it was just a complaint that came in and we respond to all of those complaints."

Penalties for an illegal burn range from civil violation tickets to criminal matters in environmental court, according to Kessler. However, referrals to prosecutors for criminal actions is very rare, he said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami

This video posted on YouTube shows the burning camper that led to the DEC investigation and the suspension of firemen: