A serial arsonist is believed to be on the loose along Derry Ridge in Westmoreland County, a forest fire specialist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry said Friday.
A remote fire Thursday in Derry Township where police and military helicopters were called in to direct firefighters to the site “was definitely arson,” said Brian Vinski, who works out of the bureau’s Forbes State Forest District office in Laughlintown.
More than an acre burned, he said.
Vinski believes the suspected arsonist has set at least four previous fires, including three in that same remote area during the last three years.
“We were lucky Thursday. It could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t contained as quickly as it was,” Vinski said.
The fire was reported around 2:30 p.m. off a fire tower road that crosses the ridge between Derry and Ligonier townships.
Fire departments from Derry Borough and Blairsville assisted, as did members of the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Fire and Rescue Team. Crews used all-terrain vehicles and utility terrain vehicles to reach the fire, which they put out sometime after 5 p.m., Derry Township Fire Chief Mark Piantine said.
Piantine said smoke could be seen in other areas of the township, including along Pizza Barn and Ankney roads. But, he said, “it was up in about two miles in a hollow. When you got closer, you couldn’t see it.”
In addition to a state police helicopter, volunteers on the ground received guidance from a National Guard helicopter crew based at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria Airport near Johnstown.
“They gave us the coordinates and sent us pictures from the sky,” Piantine said. “They really helped us out.”
Vinski, who investigated the blaze, said evidence indicates the suspect drives an all-terrain vehicle to remote sites and sets fires.
“I want to get the word out there that anyone who sees anything suspicious, no matter how minor they think it is, to call us,” Vinski said. “I will tell you that we aggressively pursue anyone who commits an arson in the woods, and they will be prosecuted.”
Authorities have “a person of interest” in the recent forest fires, but not enough evidence yet to file a formal criminal complaint, Vinski said.
“Because of the remoteness of these areas, prosecution is a lot more difficult. There are very few, if any, witnesses at all compared to a community where someone is more likely to see someone commit a crime or they may be captured on surveillance cameras,” Vinski said. “In these cases, it’s just so remote there are no cameras and witnesses. That is why we are asking anyone who may have seen something to come forward with any information.”
Remote wild fires are dangerous, Vinski said.
“These place the public at risk in nearby communities and firefighters who conduct initial attack and suppression are at a very high risk. It’s very serious,” he said.
Vinski said the fire could have been much worse if it had been set on Wednesday when sustained winds had the Forbes State Forest region, which spans from Cambria to Fayette counties, under a “red flag warning” — meaning there is a higher risk of fire spreading.
The state Bureau of Forestry says the greatest danger of wildfires in Pennsylvania is during the months of March, April, and May, and again in October and November.
Vinski led the prosecution that resulted in a 2018 conviction of 21-year-old Dylan A. Miller, of New Florence, who was charged with setting 11 wildfires throughout eastern Westmoreland County. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was sentenced to serve probation and pay $44,885 in restitution.
A former firefighter, Miller was charged with setting the fires over a six-week period in March-April 2016 in Cook, Fairfield, Ligonier and St. Clair townships.
State police search near Unity Cemetery for Cassandra Gross, who has been missing since April
State police on Monday continued searching for a woman missing since April, this time focusing their attention on an area near Unity Cemetery.
The search is for Cassandra Gross, a Unity woman last seen April 7, a state police spokesman said. Gross would have turned 52 last month.
About 30 people are involved with the search, Trooper Stephen Limani said. Those include people from Ohio-based Rapid Response Services, state police, Westmoreland County Fire and Rescue and 211 Rough Terrain Fire and Rescue. Two cadaver dogs also are available, Limani said.
Family members reported Gross missing on April 9. Norfolk Southern employees on April 10 spotted her burned red 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander in a wooded area along train tracks near Twin Lakes Park. In the days afterward, troopers were seen searching two Unity properties owned by Thomas G. Stanko, 47, who is being held in the Westmoreland County Prison on unrelated charges. One of those properties abuts Unity Cemetery.
More than a dozen fire departments from Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties responded to a woods fire Wednesday in an area along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Donegal Township.
Westbound motorists on the turnpike spotted the blaze shortly before 2 p.m. near mile marker 98.3, according to a Westmoreland County Emergency Management dispatcher. Chestnut Ridge Fire Department initially was dispatched and was joined by numerous other units — including Westmoreland County's Rough Terrain Support Unit and state forestry crews — as the fire spread into woods bordered by the turnpike and Felgar Road.
Units remained at the scene at 8 p.m.
Friends Olivia Stas, 21, of Unity and Lindsay Smetanka, 20, of Latrobe were among the 16 declared “dead” while 126 were “injured.”
No one actually was harmed, since the fire was intentionally set to practice disaster response at the Unity airport.
About 200 people volunteered to portray victims and their family members while about 150 firefighters and other emergency responders from communities in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties took part in the exercise.
Stas learned of the airport's need for volunteer victims through a Facebook message, and she and Smetanka decided to sign up.
“We're home from college, and we didn't have any plans,” Stas said.
As part of the simulation, Smetanka was listed as having suffered a traumatic head injury and Stas was to have been impaled by glass.
They were among the last to be removed from the scene on carts, pulled by all-terrain vehicles driven by members of the Westmoreland County Team 211 Rough Terrain Support Unit.
Sharon Lauffer of Unity was among the least seriously injured, or “walking wounded,” who were processed through a triage area staffed by Mutual Aid Ambulance Service.
“I'm hysterical because I can't see,” she said, referring to a slip of paper that noted her blood pressure was up to 160/100.
The crews quelled propane-fueled flames of up to 1,500 degrees on a specially prepared section of a Gulfstream jet.
The airport's “crash truck” sprayed foam to initially knock down the fire, and local community fire trucks further doused the flames so firefighters equipped with breathing apparatuses could “rescue” dummies from the plane.
Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority that operates the airport, said the first priority in such a plane crash is controlling flames on the plane's exterior to prevent or delay it from burning through into the cabin and endangering passengers.
“About 90 seconds is the amount of time you have to make a difference before it starts burning through,” he said.
Such a disaster drill must be held at the Unity airport every three years to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
“We have to make sure everything on our emergency plan is followed, all our contacts are up to date and everybody knows their role,” said Maurice Haas, director of public safety at the airport.
The Red Cross had staff on hand to practice providing assistance to volunteers portraying victims' family members.
State police have enlisted the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Support Unit in their search for a Torrance State Hospital patient who left the Derry Township facility without permission.
Police said Timothy M. Smith, 36, left the hospital about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and did not return.
Smith takes a daily medication and could have severe health problems without it, police said. Authorities believe he last took his medication about 6 a.m. Tuesday.
The rough terrain support team, a volunteer group that aids with search-and-rescue operations as well as woodland brush fires, was called in about 10:45 a.m. Wednesday to help search the area around the hospital, which is near several heavily wooded areas along the banks of the Conemaugh River and McGee Run.
Police believe Smith is wearing a black jacket, white T-shirt and blue jeans. His direction of travel is unknown.
Anyone with information on Smith's whereabouts is asked to contact the Greensburg state police barracks at 724-832-3288.
Firefighters douse 2 forest fires on Westmoreland County lands
Crews extinguish 25-acre brush fire near gas wells in Lower Tyrone, Perry townships
More than 100 firefighters battled for more than five hours against a large brush fire endangering gas wells in Lower Tyrone and Perry townships.
The blaze required response from four counties and resulted in three minor injuries, officials said.
The 911 call came from a person a train that saw the fire just after 10:30 a.m., said emergency personnel on the scene. The fire then was small, covering about one-half acre of Linden Hall property.
"Half an acre turned into 15 to 20," said Dawson Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Billy Colbert.
Colbert said crews initially responded near the train tracks, which were located below an 85-degree hill. The usual strategy, he said, was complicated by the terrain and weather.
"If you can get ahead of the fire, you can stop it from burning anything in its path," he said.
That tactic was made difficult when gusts of wind caused the fire to spread, jumping over a gas well access road. The fire began to grow, moving along the river and toward Layton. At about 2:15 p.m., officials said the fire was 2 miles from gas wells operated by Range Resources Corporation and heading in that direction. Gusting winds were making the path of the blaze unpredictable, they said.
Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range Resources, said no fire reached any of the wells.
“Range has advanced safety protocols and procedures, and as a precaution, sent personnel in coordination with first responders to monitor our locations. No fire reached any Range well locations, and there were no damages to our facilities," he said.
The wells near the fire are traditional vertical oil and gas wells, and are not horizontal shale wells.
Colbert said once the fire crossed the gas access road, crews split in half. The staging area was moved to the entrance of Linden Hall.
Crews initially were having difficulties supplying enough water to fight the rapidly growing blaze. Later each team located hydrants in the woods on its side of the access road. Six tankers responded. All-terrain vehicle strike units were deployed to move water quickly through the hilly terrain.
Firefighters used small tanks on their backs to treat smaller fires. Some were assigned to cut trees while others were assigned to extinguish hot spots. The ground was charred and covered in ash as crews worked to contain the blaze. Trees snapped and fell to the ground.
Some crews were on the scene for hours. At about 3 p.m., crews began asking for food. The fire was contained after about five hours, but many stayed to continue hot spot treatment.
One firefighter was transported to the hospital for facial burns and another was treated on the scene for smoke inhalation. A third suffered an ankle injury and would be extricated from the railroad tracks, Dawson said.
Twenty-one crews from Fayette County responded, according to Fayette County 911. They were assisted by crews from Washington, Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, including an emergency personnel rehab unit from Murrysville and a rough terrain unit from Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and National Resources deployed a strike team.
Some crews were still on the scene at 5 p.m.
"The goal is just to keep everyone safe," Colbert said just before dusk, "and be out by dark."
When asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, he added simply, "Thank God."
Sunday, July 19, 2015
A girl who was the subject of a three-hour search Sunday evening by emergency personnel was found in the village of Hutchinson in Sewickley Township, according to emergency personnel.
The girl, who had been reported missing from a South Huntingdon residence at 5:48 p.m., was spotted about 9:10 p.m. in Hutchinson, according to those searching for her.
Members of the Greensburg Fire Department bloodhound team, along with firefighters from Yukon and Turkeytown, the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Fire and Rescue Team, state police at Belle Vernon and a police helicopter were involved in the search along Route 136 and Sewickley Creek in Sewickley and South Huntingdon townships.
The search started at a South Huntingdon property. State police at Belle Vernon requested assistance. Troopers at the scene were not available for comment.
Body of missing Somerset County man found near Seanor
The body of a missing Somerset County man was found Monday after a day-long search.
Daniel Robert Thomas, 52, of Davidsville, was last seen Sunday night, according to state police at Somerset.
His body was found near railroad tracks that pass through Seanor, near where he was last seen.
In a statement released Monday night, police said Thomas' death was not believed “to be of a suspicious nature.”
Police said Thomas went for a walk and his family became worried when he did not return home.
Police were assisted by volunteers from Youngwood Search and Rescue, and an all-terrain team from Westmoreland County.
TEAM ASSISTS PSP WITH EVIDENCE SEARCH
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ TEAM RESPONDS IN WESTMORELAND CO. FOR TWO MISSING BOATERS
Posted on September 18, 2011By The Tribune Review
Two boaters who apparently became disoriented in the dark Saturday night were safely rescued from Loyalhanna Creek, near the Bush recreation area of Loyalhanna Lake in Salem, authorities said. The canoeists were brought to shore at about 11 p.m. by members of Saltsburg's water rescue team, said New Alexandria Assistant Fire Chief Richard McNaughton. The motor on their canoe had stopped working and the pair, who had entered the creek near Latrobe, drifted down the Loyalhanna and crossed beneath the Route 22 bridge, McNaughton said. The two canoeists contacted Westmoreland County 911 at 9:15 p.m. and reported that they did not know where they were, state police at Kiski said. Authorities initially thought the pair were in the Conemaugh River, but McNaughton said firefighters realized the pair were on the Loyalhanna when the canoeists and an emergency dispatcher heard New Alexandria's fire siren blowing while the canoeists were talking to 911. A state police helicopter located the two within 10 minutes, police said. The pilot then directed fire rescue teams to the boaters. Neither of the boat's occupants required medical assistance, police said. Numerous fire departments were called to the scene, along with the Westmoreland County Team 211 Rough Terrain Support Unit. The unit's 45 volunteer members respond to five counties and assist with search, rescue, recover and wild land firefighting, Chief David Rhea said. In situations like Saturday's, Rhea said, team members would be able to help transport manpower to remote areas or carry out victims in stokes baskets to waiting ambulances or helicopters. Burkley said the water was high from recent heavy rains, which might have led to some of the boaters' confusion. McNaughton said the canoeists said they were not familiar with the Loyalhanna Creek. He suggested that those launching in an area they aren't familiar with leave the water before dark. The 298-square-mile Loyalhanna Creek Watershed originates south of Ligonier Township, flows through Ligonier, Latrobe, New Alexandria and runs to Saltsburg, where it meets the Conemaugh River, according to the Loyalhanna Watershed Association.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ TEAM RESPONDS INTO FAYETTE CO. FOR MISSING HUNTERS
Posted on November 27, 2012 By jmlayton for the Herald Standard
Three hunters reported missing Monday in Lower Tyrone Township were discovered a short time later, Fayettte County 911 reports. Fayette County 911 said the three men were reported missing around 6:22 p.m. near Perryopolis on the first day of rifle deer hunting’s two-week season. The men were discovered around 8 p.m. near some railroad tracks by game lands near Perryopolis. Fayette County 911 said the men did not need to be taken to an area hospital for treatment. Perry Township and the Dawson volunteer fire departments were assisted by the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Support Unit.