Springfield fire officials had eye on pallet yard long before blaze

The site of a pallet fire in July was previously scrutinized by the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division for years, a Springfield News-Sun investigation found.

The issues included having pallets stacked within 10 feet of the property line, not having a proper fence around the property and not leaving 20-feet between rows of stacked pallets, according to the court records.

The division and city prosecutor filed charges against a man last year in connection to the alleged code violations at that property, according to court records.

John Sickinger, who owns Tri-State Pallet, Inc. and leases the yard at 1200 Warder Street, was charged in March 2018 in Clark County Municipal Court with four counts of violating fire prevention codes. He, nor his attorney, responded to a request for comment for this story.

The charges allege that Sickinger failed to address the violations at the property, which were documented by members of the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division in 2017.

“The property has been in continuous violation with respect to the referenced code sections since Nov. 9, 2017, and the four violations listed in the citation still existed as of my most recent visit to the property on Feb. 23 and Feb. 26, 2018,” an affidavit filed with the charges says.

The court record says officials had sent several notifications dating back to May 1, 2017.

Sickinger is due in court on Aug. 21, according to online court records.

Fire officials said the pallet yard had similar violations when they arrived to battle a blaze there on July 10. Officials said the violations caused them to have trouble fighting the flames as improperly stacked pallets made it difficult for fire crews to enter or navigate the yard, Springfield Assistant Fire Chief Matthew Smith.

The blaze involved 27 firefighters and took more than an hour to contain. The fire division spent about $1,435 in overtime as a result of the fire, Smith said.

The Springfield News-Sun filed a public records request after the fire . The request sought information regarding fire code violations found at the pallet yard.

The July fire is estimated to have burned thousands of pallets, causing firefighters to navigate approximately an acre of burned wood. Around 10 percent of the yard’s estimated 78,000 pallets were destroyed in the blaze, according to a fire report released by the fire division.

The cause of the blaze has been marked as undetermined.

Fire officials are in talks with businesses operating at the site, including Sickinger. Following the blaze, the fire division determined that A&P Investments owns the land at 1200 Warder and leases it to Tri-State, which sub-leases the land to S&D Pallets, according to the fire report. Smith said S&D Pallets stores its pallets on the site and all three businesses are being held equally responsible for violations reported.

Smith said a new citation was filed against all three businesses in the wake of the fire and they have until Aug. 26 to get the property up to code. If not, they could be fined up to $200 to $1,000 and face criminal charges.

Previous communications

Email and written correspondence between multiple fire officials, Sickinger and his legal representation spanning from May 2017 to February 2018 show Sickinger was the point of contact for concerns of the fire division in that there was no separation between pallet piles at the Warder Street address.

Springfield Fire Chief Brian Miller said in an email to Sickinger sent on Oct. 19, 2017 that “there is no way a fire truck could possibly access the middle of the lot to extinguish a fire. I also agreed to give you time to address this.”

By the end of 2017 it was noted that not much had changed at the property. Miller again wrote to Sickinger in December, warning of possible legal action if significant progress was not made at the lot by the end of the month.

Shortly before criminal charges were filed against Sickinger, his lawyer alerted fire officials that the pallets on the yard belonged to S&D pallets.

However, former Springfield Law Director Jerome Strozdas said in an email to Sickinger’s legal representation in February that S&D and Tri-State were responsible, under the law, for fire code violations at the property.

Correspondence between the fire division and the parties involved with the Warder Street address tapered off after criminal charges were filed against Sickinger in municipal court, public records show.

“Frankly we let it lie for a while and the fire prompted us to get back on top of this and deal with this situation,” Smith said.

Meeting August deadline 

Smith said that pallet yards are required to have its inventory stacked in grid pattern, usually 50 by 150 feet and cannot be stacked higher than 20 feet. He said access ways have to be in between each stack to give firefighters enough room to battle a potential fire at the property.

That was not the case in July, when firefighters —having trouble entering the property— used methods such as shooting elevated streams of water into the property in an attempt to extinguish the flames, according to the fire report.

Shawn Morrow, with S&D pallet, has submitted a plan to the fire division outlining how he will clean the yard by the end of August and has made significant progress, according to Smith.

Sickinger was never arrested regarding the original charges filed in March of last year. Smith said the fire division does not have the ability to make arrests and added “It was not enforced by the Police Department and we did not come back and say ‘Hey, we really need you to pick him up.’”

However, Smith added that if the property is up to code by the end of August, his department would recommend dropping the charges levied against Sickinger.

“If they get it all resolved by (then), this all goes away,” he said.

27: Number of firefighters who responded to pallet fire at 1200 Warder St.

78,000: Estimated number of pallets on the property at time of fire

10: Percentage of pallets destroyed in fire

The Springfield News-Sun examined court documents and other public records to document Springfield Fire/Rescue Division’s history with business owners at 1200 Warder St. where a massive fire broke out in July.

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