Fire is just one of the dangers facing communities fighting an epidemic of methamphetamine labs throughout Ashtabula County.
During the past year a rash of fires have been tied to meth labs while many others are under investigation.
Ashtabula Fire Chief Ron Pristera said firefighters almost have to assume they are walking in to a meth fire on every call.
The high profile Park Haven fire that killed a man and forced the evacuation of the Ashtabula facility, a little more than a year ago, made it clear people are willing to cook meth just about anywhere, said Ashtabula County Prosecutor Thomas Sartini.
“Not only are they willing to risk their own lives, they will risk the lives of their families, their children (as well as neighbors),” he said.
The need for the next hit outweighs any other factors, Sartini said.
He said meth makers are brazen and attempt to do a lot of work at the same time. “We have video of four or five pots cooking all at once,” Sartini said
Pristera said firefighters responding to a meth fire must be aware there may be more material that could ignite. “You have a fire within a fire,” he said of those started by “cooking” meth.
Bottom line is the addiction is so strong all controlling factors are taken out of the equation. “They (addicts) just don’t care,” Sartini said.
Some meth cookers feel like they are experts and aren’t concerned about the danger, Sartini said.
“Every single one of them is a potential fire bomb … one careless move and it explodes,” he said.
A more recent meth development has moved the production of the drug to mobile labs that are even more dangerous.
Ashtabula County Assistant Prosecutor Susan Thomas said a car that was being used to “cook” meth recently exploded destroying the car and severely injuring a man who will likely be on disability the rest of his life.
Old meth labs required hundreds of pseudoephedrine heated over open flames and cans of flammable liquids creating foul odors.
The “shake and bake” method requires a smaller amount of pills and can be “cooked” in a car or other small area, according to police and prosecutors.
The new method is extremely dangerous. “One careless move and it explodes and it burns,” Sartini said.
Several area residents have suffered serious burns in portable and “house bound” labs, Sartini said.
Arson investigations are becoming more challenging as fire departments pinpoint the cause and law enforcement officers interview witnesses and do other background investigation.
“Under most cases we can say this fire wasn’t an accident. The challenge is proving (who did it and how),” Pristera said.
Sartini said judges have been giving strong sentences and new laws have made it harder to get pseudophedrine, one of the key ingredients.
He said prosecutors are also charging people for helping those who make the drug and not giving first-time offenders any breaks.
“People are going to prison,” he said.
Even with all the deterrents, the epidemic continues.