A grass fire damaged about 1,800 tombstones, including those of a number of Civil War dead, after flames spread across five acres of Chattanooga National Cemetery on Sunday afternoon. Deborah Kendrick, the cemetery's director, said the fire erupted at 1200 Bailey Ave. around 1:30 p.m., charring a small portion of the cemetery's 43,000-plus grave markers. In most cases, Kendrick said, the damage is not too severe — nothing that can't be fixed with a pressure washer.
However, the fire burned at least three tombstones so badly that cemetery officials will have to replace them.
The national cemetery is reserved for military veterans who have received honorable discharges. A member of the National Guard or the U.S. Army Reserve can also be buried there, assuming that person is eligible for retirement benefits. Some family members are also eligible.
The fire's cause is unknown. Chattanooga Fire Department spokesman Bruce Garner said investigators typically do not investigate grass fires as thoroughly as they do when flames engulf a building.
Garner said weather conditions could have caused the fire to spread farther than it would during the spring. The grass is dry now, making it more flammable, and strong winds can push the fire.
“That is a bad combination,” Garner said.
The cause could be something as simple as a lit cigarette flicked to the ground.
Kendrick said cemetery employees will pressure-wash the tombstones, but not until the weather gets warmer.
“The water's not going to be effective if it's freezing,” Kendrick said.
Cemetery employees also must wait until the wind dies down. When scrubbing a tombstone, they use a cleaning product called Weather Zyme, and the product works best when it can sit on a surface for 10 days. A strong wind might scoot the cleaning product off the tombstone, which would be a waste.
Out of the cemetery's 36 burial sections located on 120 acres, five sections on the north side of the property were damaged: Section C, Section F, Section W, Section CC and Post Section A, the burial land of Civil War veterans.