Varina residents ‘overwhelmed’ after brush fire: 'You’re at the mercy of the element'

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Posted at 5:28 PM, Jun 25, 2024

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Varina resident Jeff Varljen says he was talking with his neighbor Monday when he suddenly smelled smoke in the air.

“Lots of people have different fire pits all up and down the road," Varljen said. "We didn’t think much of it.”

Twenty minutes later, the Varljen came outside and saw the plumes of smoke moving over his house.

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Jeff Varljen

“It took off like a racecar. It escalated very quickly.”

The fire began at Messer and New Market Roads, quickly spreading to the border of nearby Route 5.

In its totality, it covered 75 acres of land. Fires engulfed residents sheds, fence lines, and scorched Varina farmland.

By 5:45 Monday evening, an officer came to Varljen’s house and notified residents they needed to move to the street.

Shortly after he moved his family outside, they were told they needed to get in their car and go “as far away as possible."

“It’s pretty overwhelming. You realize how much you’re at the mercy of [the element]. You have no control over any part of it,” said Varljen. “Not five minutes from me looking at it from 400 yards away, it’s now at the point where I can feel the heat. It goes from 0 to 100 pretty fast.”

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“It’s just a shame that this happened,” Varljen said.

Kay Macklin, Varljen’s next door neighbor, was driving home from work when she noticed the smoke clouds billowing.

“I couldn’t even get home. The police had the street blocked off. That’s when it all set in,” Macklin said. “I had no idea how bad it was.”

Macklin saw firsthand how close the fire was to the place she’s called home for 15 years. Luckily, she said, the damage was minimal.

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Kay Macklin

“We had some [damage] to the outside, but everything inside is okay. Our house is fine," Macklin said.

Bill Nelson, a Varina farmer, shared his unique point of view as an eyewitness to the fires, coming down to the affected area to plow a trench in the field to stop the brush fire.

While the fire only came within a quarter mile of his property, he drove down out of concern for his home.

“With the wind blowing and the height of that fire, it could've been there in a short period of time," Nelson said.

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Bill Nelson

He has been called a hero for jumping into action on Monday. But Nelson says he was just helping his community.

“I’m just a neighbor that took care of my neighbors," he said.

Nelson has experience digging fire lines in fields to prevent and stop brush fires. As a fourth generation farmer, he has advice for avoiding this type of situation again, as it only gets hotter:

“[Don’t] burn trash, don’t do anything. A lawn mower blade hitting a rock would set this whole field on fire.”

Nelson says that Henrico Fire did a “tremendous job”. Neighbors credited the firefighters for acting quickly and helping reduce long-lasting damage.

“One firefighter, when they were working back here, actually jumped in this area just to sit with the chickens and make sure they were okay,” said Varljen, who has a coop with nine chickens. “They really did a wonderful job. They live up to all the hype we give them.”

Henrico Fire is now urging residents to practice fire safety, staying diligent about how easily a fire can get out of control as the heat and dryness in Central Virginia only intensifies.

"Just be extremely careful with any discarded cigarettes, any cooking that you're doing with charcoal or anything like that. Anything you go to dump, you got to make sure you spray that water out and make sure it's completely out before you leave," said Battalion Chief Doug Reynolds. "Best just not to have [a fire] at this time. And you certainly don't want to have any unattended fires nothing big because it can get away from you."

It is a message echoed across the state, as the majority of Virginia is under a drought watch. A drought watch is in effect for several northern and northwestern counties and cities.

"And so, that does increase the risk of wildfires as we've seen in Henrico. County last night," said Michael Downey, Assistant Director for Wildfire Mitigation at the Virginia Department of Forestry. "As it gets hotter and drier out. Again, with that combination, that does increase the risk of wildland fire, because of drier vegetation, such as grass, some of those finer fuels."

DOF puts out a daily fire danger rating and the Henrico area, which Downey said is considered in the Tappahannock, is under a moderate fire danger rating.

Statewide, Downey said it has been a very active fire season so far, with nearly 500 fire year-to-date and over 20,000 acres burned.

"It's not that surprising with some of the weather patterns we've had — the dryness, last fall was really dry," he added. "That's why we try to educate homeowners, landowners on operating equipment use, home structure preparedness, being more fire adapted. We're finding out that it isn't just a spring and a fall fire season. Clearly things are burning here in June and are burning actively...So we need to be cautious."

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