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Fire damage to aquaculture facility reaches $200,000

By Lynn Davis

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 07 - October 5, 1995

Thanks to an astute campus police officer, Eugene Linkous, the university's Aquaculture Center, instead of burning totally to the ground, sustained probable $200,000 equipment and structural damage.

After discovering the fire at approximately 4 a.m. Sunday on his routine patrol, Linkous called the Blacksburg Fire Department, whose quick response time had controlled the fire by 4:45 a.m. and saved the rest of the building. "Another five minutes later, the building would have been history," aquaculture Director George Libey declared.

The fire department performed a routine investigation but has ruled out arson. Calling the blaze accidental, Fire Prevention Coordinator Wayne Garst explained that "the fire probably started in the small U-shaped building adjacent to the aquaculture lab.

The plywood shed housed $25,000 worth of new ozone generators and computer equipment. "It would not be unusual for electrical shorts to occur in that type of environment," added Fred Weaver, the university's director of risk management. "When the fire department arrived, the fire had moved from the generator shed into the production room of the building and was beginning to rupture the oxygen supply lines. If the flames had spread to the compressed-oxygen tanks, we would have seen a lot of fireworks."

In addition to completely taking the shed, the fire heavily damaged one wall and portions of the roof.

"My first concern when I arrived on the scene," Libey said, "was if anyone had been hurt. We are grateful no one was. Then my second concern was what happened to three years of research by our doctoral candidate, Brian Brazil. My third concern was how could we get back in business."

The irretrievable loss from the fire was Brazil's research on how ozone affected aquaculture recirculating systems. Last year the graduate student had endured a setback when his fish died from disease.

The ozone generators, which are different from electrical generators, used pure oxygen to create ozone. In the aquaculture experiments, ozone is pumped into the water to improve water quality. Brazil, who would have completed his studies in December, was trying to determine the optimal amount of ozone for commercial fish growers.

Greg Brown, dean of the College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources that oversees the aquaculture facility, confirmed that the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences would work with Brazil to develop an abbreviated project that will enable him to complete his work and still receive his degree. A time extension would probably be involved.

"The fish loss amounted to 9,300 pounds," Libey stated. "For the most part, they suffocated from the heat. What things the fire did not burn, the heat melted. We were, however, able to save tilapia being used in the research project studying spawning. We took about 600 pounds of those brood fish out to the Greenhouse 30 feet away."

The Greenhouse suffered only minor damage when some of the plastic panels melted from the nearby heat. "We are now in the process of putting together a log of the destroyed equipment," Libey said.

Damage costs were revised upward from an early assessment of $50,000. "When we started examining the building more carefully, we found additional structural damage," Weaver said.

"Physical Plant has already begun tearing down the burned sections and moving salvaged equipment out for building repair," Weaver said. "Getting the facility back up and running is a priority because graduate students need the lab for their research."

While repairs are going on, the other wing of the lab, unaffected by the fire, can continue operations because Physical Plant closed off a hallway door. Libey projected that repairs, which were begun immediately under existing university contracts, would take three to six months. All the fish tanks would probably have to be taken out for the rewiring.

The losses are covered by a combination of insurance, Weaver noted: "self insurance through the state, a trust fund, and private insurance. Essentially, after the $250 deductible, replacement of the loss will be totally covered."

Brian Murphy, head of fisheries and wildlife sciences, described the lab as a facility for research and demonstration for aquaculture, with prime focus on commercial food-fish production and secondary focus on endangered species culture. The research is important because "there is no question that as wild fish supplies diminish, aquaculture will become an increasingly important food source," Murphy explained.