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Local man says he's got the cure for wildfires in the West …

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Richmonder Wants to Bring Russia to the RescueEcstasy Knockoffs Reach RichmondRichmond a No-Show Among DMV PlatesDominion's the NameOld Building Gets New Lease, Life

Richmonder Wants to Bring Russia to the Rescue

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Tom Robinson says IL-76 Russian planes should be allowed to help put out forest fires blazing through the West.Richmonder Tom Robinson is ready to make a call he says could put out the wildfires making front-page news. The problem is, federal officials don't seem to be taking him seriously. Robinson, founder of the Virginia Fire and Police Museum, serves as international liaison to the Russian Federation's Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM), the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) here.

It's Robinson's job to introduce Russia's Ilyushin aircraft, the IL-76, to the United States for service in fighting forest fires and in aiding disaster-relief missions. According to Robinson, five IL-76 planes — formerly Soviet military bombers — have been converted to firefighting machines 10 times more effective than the air tankers used in the U.S. He says the IL-76 already has been used effectively in Turkey and Greece.

This fire season has proved to be the worst in the United States since 1988. Fires are raging throughout 10 western states, destroying more than 3 million acres at a cost of $15 million a day. Federal officials have called in military troops, as well as firefighters from Mexico and Australia.

That's what has Robinson fired up. "It's infuriating," he says. "It's just a real slap in the face." He says the IL-76 is available for just the cost of the fuel — $100,000 per plane - and lodgings for crew members. But getting federal approval to use the Russian planes is a matter of protocol, politics and pride - not to mention big business.

Robinson calls the USDA Forest Service a "sacred cow" which must first give the stamp of approval to any foreign aircraft used to fight fires here. Some of those decision-makers are domestic air-tanker contractors who stand to lose if the IL-76 proves more effective than the C130 air tankers predominantly used in fighting U.S. fires. Forest Service officials - who were a bit busy at the time — could not be reached for comment.

What Robinson insists is a diplomatic mission has become a crusade. He's called the governors of New Mexico and Colorado as well as the Department of the Interior and the deputy undersecretary of energy. "I'm working with [3rd District] Congressman [Bobby] Scott right now," he says. Scott, whose Washington office did not return calls for comment, serves on the Congressional Firefighters Caucus.

As diplomatic as it all sounds there is a capitalist component. Robinson, who says he is compensated for his work, ultimately hopes the first-time-for-free chance to use the IL-76 would allow the planes to be considered for firefighting contracts.

Robinson, who's been asked to stop calling the Secretary of the Interior offering assistance, says he may have to take his case to Congress or even to the president. "We're up against arrogance, ignorance and tradition," he says. "We're up against American sentiment: motherhood, apple pie and Smokey the Bear - and Smokey the Bear isn't the friendly bear it used to be."

Brandon Walters

Ecstasy Knockoffs Reach Richmond

Ravers beware: That next tab may be more agony than Ecstasy.

Local law-enforcement and medical officials say demand for the popular party pill has opened the door for dangerous imitators.

"There's a lot of junk out there that isn't Ecstasy, and it can make you sick and kill you," says Colleen McCue, supervisor of the police department's crime analysis unit. Cheaper and less-refined copycats are "sneaking into the rave scene," she says. "They call them 'tweakers.' They're sort of the trailer trash of rave drugs," famous for keeping users awake and euphoric at all-night dance parties.

The new knockoffs can be deadly: Ersatz Ecstasy has been found to contain everything from antihistamines to insecticides, and an apparent Ecstasy overdose at a Manhattan club last month now appears to have been caused by GHB, another knockoff, reports New York magazine.

GHB, also called liquid Ecstasy, has been responsible for about four ER admissions a month in Richmond this summer, says Dr. Rutherfoord Rose, toxicologist and head of the Virginia Poison Control Center. Like Ecstasy, the drug causes euphoria but can induce seizures and coma at higher doses.

"What sticks out in my mind this summer is Ecstasy and GHB," Rose says. "I think it's an increase, a summer spike. I don't recall having anything like this number of cases" in previous years.

Narcotics detectives agree: "The drug of choice this summer seems to be Ecstasy," says Richmond Police Department spokeswoman Christie Collins. But as McCue cautions: "Ecstasy' now means so many things. We don't know what the kids are taking."

Rob Morano

Richmond a No-Show Among DMV Plates

Spiders plates, Hokies plates, duckpin bowler plates, Harley-Davidson owners plates, tobacco supporter plates, animal-lover plates, all are there. But no matter how closely you inspect the wall of license plates in the Department of Motor Vehicles headquarters, you will not see any symbol of Richmond.

The cities of Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Alexandria, Fairfax and Chesapeake all have license-plate designs. Even the Chesterfield miner graces a plate to commemorate the county's 250th anniversary. Virginia Beach's plate design shows dolphins jumping from the ocean. Fairfax's bears the city logo. Chesapeake's depicts a man in a canoe.

But Richmond — capital of the state, capital of the Confederacy, site of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech — is absent.

"No, that is not something the city has considered," at least in recent memory, says city spokeswoman Michele Quander-Collins. She quickly adds that a Richmond license plate might be taken into account.

Of course a plate design would have to be decided by committee, and if approved, City Council would then have to submit the plans to the General Assembly. Also, 350 applicants would have to prepay for the design before the DMV could let the tags hit the streets. After 1,000 plates are sold, some groups begin to get a percentage of money from each plate sold. With the city facing a $4 million police-department deficit, it might not be such a bad idea.

— Jacob Parcell

Dominion's the Name

The jingles are catchy. Still, the aberration of James Earl Jones' "Welcome to Verizon" is a bit creepy. With the "Bell Atlantic" nixed from the name, there's no reference to Alexander Graham Bell or the region the phone company serves.

Now it looks like Virginia Dominion Power is next in line to disconnect its name from the regional map.

Just months ago, Virginians saw a change in name from Virginia Power to Virginia Dominion Power. Its holding company, Dominion Resources, introduced a flashy new logo that brings to mind Michelangelo's "Creation."

And in the process of re-creating themselves, companies increasingly shy away from including what they do and where they do it - at least in name.

"It's kind of a phasing process," says Irene Cimino, spokeswoman for what soon will be just Dominion. Expect to see the new name in print on your bill summary this fall. "We're deleting the geographical references," says Cimino, "because Dominion is more universal." Just think what adding "Old" could have done to bolster homogeneity.

B.W.

Old Building Gets New Lease, Life

It's a grand old building," says Bert Deacon. "One of the premier architectural landmarks in Richmond."

But the building at 821 E. Main St. holds more than aesthetic appeal for The Tredegar Trust Company's president and CEO. Come January, the imposing edifice with the four-story Roman arch will be his money-management firm's new home in January.

"I love old buildings," Deacon says, "but this was also a very sound economic and financial decision."

Translation: a lease cheaper than the firm's current Riverfront Plaza rent.

After more than a decade of disuse, the Main Street building itself is getting a new lease - and new life. Owner W.J. Vakos & Co. of Fredericksburg says it has leased the building to Tredegar Trust and will start renovations in the fall, with move-in projected for January. That will bring the Main Street building - completed in 1921 for the Virginia Trust Company - its first occupant since former owner Virginia First Savings and Loan decamped in the '80s.

The years of idleness have not been kind: Cobwebs string insolently across the locked entrance area; door and window grillwork is flaking; and the once grandly chandeliered interior now appears a vault of dust and decay. Deacon says renovations should preserve "99.99 percent" of the 23,000-square-foot structure's interior; The Tredegar Trust Company, which he projects to grow from 16 to 22 employees by move-in, will occupy about 11,000 square feet on the building's main and two basement floors.

"I'm just glad our company can play a role in revitalizing that part of downtown Richmond," he says. For now, however, only the triumphal granite arch retains the glory of Richmond's then-homegrown financial industry.

"This great arch," writes Robert P. Winthrop in "Architecture in Downtown Richmond," "opens in Richmond's handsomest banking interior, a huge room covered by a superb gold, blue and white coffered ceiling and an octagonal domed skylight."

These days, however, all that is not dirty is dingy, and the large clock opposite the entrance remains fixed in time.

R.M.

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