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36 trucks remove fire fuel as WVU-LSU game looms

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 5:26 p.m. MDT

City workers and fire marshals fanned out across Morgantown, W.Va., on Sept. 22, 2011, removing furniture and trash that could be used to fuel celebratory street fires before or after West Virginia University's big football game Saturday night against No. 2 Louisiana State.

Vicki Smith, Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Cleanup crews filled three dozen dump trucks with furniture and trash from hundreds of rental properties Thursday as Morgantown officials tried to prevent or at least downsize the street fires that have long typified weekends at West Virginia University.

Fire marshals posted hundreds of notices on doors earlier this week as excitement builds for Saturday night's football game between No. 16 West Virginia and No. 2 LSU. Both teams are 3-0. ESPN's "College GameDay" is broadcasting from Morgantown all day Saturday, and win or lose, the potential for revelry is high. Kickoff is at 8 p.m.

"If we win, maybe we won't have as many fires," said Fire Marshall Capt. Ken Tennant. "And if there are some fires, we hope that reduces the size of the fires."

The cleanup began at 9 a.m. Thursday and covered both the Sunnyside area and downtown. It was the first time since 2005, before a big game with Virginia Tech, that the city conducted what it calls a furniture abatement program.

That time, crews filled about two dozen dump trucks and fire marshals wrote more than 80 misdemeanor citations to those who refused to cooperate, Tennant said. On Thursday, only three residents refused to comply. They were cited and could face fines of $100 to $1,000.

"Most people were very understanding of what we were doing," he said.

State and city fire marshals will begin patrolling the historically problematic neighborhoods Thursday night and will work through the weekend.

Morgantown and WVU have been trying for years to end the long-standing tradition of setting fires to celebrate athletic victories and other events, including the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May. There are hundreds every year.

Last month, the city announced it will begin filing felony charges against people caught setting fires. Convictions under the state arson code could mean one to three years in prison, depending on the severity of the charge.

Until now, Morgantown has relied on its misdemeanor malicious burning ordinance, which carries a mandatory $1,000 fine. But police and fire officials said that wasn't enough of a deterrent.

"We're still having fires," Tennant said, noting two arrests followed the Maryland game last weekend. "There's still stuff being burned, so we have to assume the burning's going to continue."

The furniture abatement order is in effect until 8 a.m. Monday.

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