Ozark County VFD mutual aid shines as firefighters respond to three separate fires in Ozark County on Christmas morning
Bakersfield Volunteer Fire Department chief Greg Watts was asleep when his emergency radio went off at 1:47 a.m. on a dark Christmas morning.
An Ozark County dispatcher toned out the Bakersfield VFD to respond to a structure fire at the Tom Turner home on County Road 588, just south of Bakersfield near the Missouri-Arkansas line. Watts and four other Bakersfield firefighters responded to the fire, and mutual aid was also dispatched from Dora, Tecumseh, Caulfield and Gamaliel, Arkansas VFDs.
“Arriving on scene, we just had smoke coming out of the residence in the front. Talking with the homeowner outside, we knew everyone was out. He told us where the fire was at, in the kitchen area,” Watts said. “The first firefighters to go in opened the front door and couldn’t see because of heavy smoke rolling out. So we went to the back and gained entry through the back of the house.”
Watts later learned that Tom Turner’s son Brett had gotten up around 1:45 a.m. to use the bathroom and realized the house was on fire.
Brett immediately ran to a bedroom where his 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son were sleeping on a bunk bed. He grabbed the two children and ran outside with them. By then, his dad had also awakened and had left his bedroom to exit the home.
“Because they came out of the house after getting the kids out and everything, they shut all the doors to the bedrooms,” Watts said. “The old house is airtight, and it just snuffed the fire out. It was just laying there, waiting on someone to give it oxygen.”
Watts said that first blast of oxygen came when the firefighters entered the home, fueling the flames.
“When they came in, they knocked it in with the hose,” he said. “They used maybe 75 gallons of water off the truck. Then we came in and did an overhaul and tore the ceiling down to try and figure out where all the fire was at,” Watts said.
After the fire was extinguished, Watts noticed the charred Christmas gifts; some packages were completely ash, others slightly burned.
“When you notice these Christmas presents under the tree, and you have your own kids, it hits close to home. It’s a sad, sad deal,” he said.
The cause of the fire is believed to be an electrical issue within the home’s oven.
Watts said both children were uninjured, but both Tom and Brett were burned.
Brett reportedly sustained second-degree burns to his head, face and neck when he opened the door to the kids’ bedroom, Watts said. “A flash of fire” exploded from one room into the other, across Brett’s face, when the bedroom door was opened. He was transported to an area hospital, where he was treated and released.
Tom, who was limping on scene, initially did not think he was injured in the fire. He told firefighters he’d hurt his leg in an accident sometime before the fire, but later that night, he realized he had also been burned on his feet as he escaped from the structure.
Watts said he is thankful for the departments who responded in mutual aid.
“We only have five people here in our department. We have some others on the roster, but they’re gone for periods of time with the military and stuff like that,” he said. “You have to have support from your neighboring departments. Out here in these rural areas, we don’t have a lot of people, so we really have to rely on our neighboring departments to get the manpower and equipment to handle a structure fire.”
The Turner structure was still standing, although it will likely be declared a complete loss. The scene was cleared at 9:15 a.m., seven hours and 20 minutes after the fire call first came in.
100-year-old Dora farmhouse burns to the ground
Dora VFD chief Monte Shipley was one of many firefighters who responded in mutual aid to the Bakersfield fire at 1:47 a.m.
As that blaze began to die down, Watts released some of the other departments while the Bakersfield firefighters continued to battle the fire. Shipley and the other Dora firefighters made their way home around 4 a.m.
Shipley was nearing Dora on H Highway after the nearly 30-mile trek back home when he did a double-take and wiped his sleepy eyes. An orange glow burned from Wayne Osborn’s farm on County Road 355, about a half mile from Shipley’s own home.
“I thought, ‘Is that a fire?’ Then I thought, ‘No, that’s just a yard light glowing.’ But when we passed the driveway, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a fire.’ I could see smoke down in the valley,” Shipley said. “I just couldn’t believe it at first.”
He radioed fellow firefighter John Epley, who was following Shipley in the Dora VFD tanker truck, for confirmation.
“I asked, “Is that a fire to your right?’ He said, ‘I believe it is.’ We just turned around and came down to the house. I radioed dispatch, and they called for mutual aid - from the same people who were at the Bakersfield fire.”
Shipley said he “laid on the siren” when he was coming up the Osborn drive because he wasn’t sure if the homeowner had made it out of the structure or not. A shut gate blocked the driveway.
“I was just hoping it wasn’t locked,” Shipley said.
Luckily, the gate wasn’t locked, and Shipley was able to quickly open it and enter the property.
“One of our firefighters, Jan Ordoyne, was going to the side door to check if anyone was inside when she came across Wayne outside the home,” Shipley said.
Osborn told her he was the only one in the home at the time.
“What a relief that was,” Shipley said.
Osborn had been sleeping when he was awakened by a loud noise in the attic-area of the 100-year-old, all-wood farmhouse.
“It sounded like firewood crackling and cluttering upstairs. There were these loud thumps like someone was throwing wood around. Then I looked out, and I seen it was all lit up - and the house was just blazing,” Wayne told the Times.
He ran outside and called 911. Wayne’s call came in just minutes after Shipley’s had.
“That was a pretty quick response time, I guess you’d say,” Shipley said. “The homeowner hadn’t even had time to the make the emergency call before the firetrucks started showing up.”
When Shipley arrived, the fire had vented out one end of the home around a chimney. Because of the location, he initially though it was a flue fire; however, the fire soon vented out the other side of the house and all up and down a second chimney.
“When we started our attack, we saw a glow in the window upstairs. And I thought, “Oh, it’s already in the upstairs. Then it wasn’t long until the roof fell in,” he said. “I think it started on that south end. We had that south breeze, and it just pushed it through that entire attic.”
Tecumseh VFD arrived on scene a short time later, followed by Caney Mountain, Caulfield and Bakersfield VFDs also responding in mutual aid.
“They set up, and we dumped something like 7,000 gallons on it, and we just couldn’t touch it,” Shipley said.
The home burned to the ground, but several close outbuildings and barns on the property were undamaged. And most importantly, Osborn was uninjured.
Shipley said the cause of the fire is unknown. Osborn said he was not using a wood stove or electric heaters. Shipley said old wiring in the century-old structure could be to blame, “but we just don’t know,” he said.
“The good Lord was looking out for him that morning, sure enough,” Shipley said. “I’m just thankful for the mutual aid fire departments in Ozark County. They’re awesome. We couldn’t do it alone. Most of us are shorthanded on our own, but with the other departments, we make a difference.”
The Dora scene was cleared at 9:55 a.m., five hours and 38 minutes after the first call came in.
A GoFundMe.com account has been set up by Osborn’s family. To donate, search for “Wayne Osborn house fire.”
Tragedies come in threes - a third home fire
Watts left the Dora fire and was traveling toward the Gainesville, where he and Bakersfield assistant fire chief Punk Stone planned to fill the department’s oxygen bottles and air packs in the Gainesville VFD firehouse so they were ready for the next fire. But then his emergency radio sounded again. The 9:24 a.m. call dispatched firefighters to yet another structure fire, this time at Betty Jackson’s home on High School Drive in Gainesville.
Gainesville VFD assistant fire chief John Russo said his department immediately responded. No one was home at the time of the fire.
“From the time we got the call to when the first unit was on scene was approximately 15 minutes,” Russo said. “When we arrived, we found heavy fire coming from the back side of the room in the garage area and heavy smoke coming from out of all the eaves. Fortunately, at this location, we have a fire hydrant in the front yard. So we were able to start fire suppression efforts right away. Within about 15 to 20 minutes, we had the main body of the fire knocked down.”
Mutual aid was requested from Caney Mountain, Tecumseh, Lick Creek, Pontiac / Price Place and Bakersfield VFDs.
“When additional personnel arrived from the mutual aid departments, we were able to overhaul and completely extinguish the fire,” he said. “We only had three Gainesville firefighters available yesterday, as several of our members were out of town for Christmas. But with the mutual aid departments, we had about 30 to 35 firefighters helping fight this fire. We’re very thankful for their help.”
Russo said the fire is still under investigation, but it appears to have begun in the home’s kitchen between the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. Russo said he does not believe heating equipment was involved.
The home is still standing but badly damaged.
“Due to the efforts of all the mutual aid departments, we were able to make a good stop on the fire. We were able to save a lot of the possessions in the home, some of which had unmatched sentimental value to the family. And we’re just thankful on this fire that no one got hurt,” he said. “As a result of teamwork, we were able to save a lot of their personal possessions.”
The Gainesville fire scene was cleared at 12:08 p.m., two hours and 44 minutes after the call first came in.
Homeowner Betty Jackson said she had decided to spend the night at her son’s home in West Plains on Christmas Eve so she could spend Christmas Day there with her son, daughter and grandchildren.
“The drive to West Plains is just so long. I thought it would be best if I just stayed,” she told the Times. “That’s the reason I wasn’t home. I guess that was a blessing in disguise.”
She said she was shocked when her other son, Manuel Asher, who lives in a home beside her, called her to tell her that her house was on fire.
“I told him my little cat was inside, and I begged him to go get her,” she said. “He came over and kicked in the door – and I have all steel doors, so it wasn’t easy.”
Manuel was able to save his mom’s beloved cat.
“I was so worried about my cat. He came to me as a little stray about a year ago, and I took him in,” Betty said. “All my kids are grown now, and he’s like my child.”
Betty said she did lose some sentimental items in the fire, including photos of her oldest son who died a few years ago.
“But I’m just glad no one got hurt, and my little cat is all right,” she said.
Watts and Shipley confirmed that Turner and Osborn are both dues-paying members of the Bakersfield and Dora volunteer fire departments. Jackson, who lives inside the Gainesville city limits, pays VFD dues as part of her city taxes.
Another generation of helpers
Watts, who began his day with that first emergency tone-out at 1:47 a.m., finally made it home around 4 p.m. on Christmas Day after 14 hours of fighting Ozark County fires. He didn’t eat anything during that time, so he was hungry, hot, dehydrated and exhausted by the time he made it back to his house.
“I took a shower, went to sleep and didn’t know anything else until 6:30 the next morning,” he said.
While away from home selflessly helping his fellow Ozark Countians in their time of need, Watts missed spending Christmas morning with his own three children. However, his wife Zaylor sent a cell phone video of the girls opening their gifts that morning.
“I got it when I was at the Dora fire,” he said. “I’m so glad she was able to take that video, so I could see the excitement in their eyes when they opened their presents.”
The three girls, who range in age from 2 to 11, weren’t upset that their dad wasn’t home Christmas Day. Instead, they chose to follow in his community-minded footsteps.
“They got a little bit of money as a Christmas gift from an uncle,” Watts told the Times the day after the fire. “When they heard about the fire, the first thing they said was that they wanted to take their money and buy those kids some Christmas gifts. So we’re headed to do that today.”