HAMMOND -- Three north shore Walmarts were evacuated in the past two weeks after someone started chemical fires in the stores’ pool supplies sections.
No one was harmed, but officials say those chemical fires could have been deadly if it weren’t for a quick response from store employees and first responders.
Starr Stevens shops at the Hammond Walmart every Monday, but she thought twice about going back after her daughter was forced to evacuate after one of those fires was set.
“She said some woman came screaming through the store, ‘Fire! Fire! Everybody out!’” Stevens remembered.
According to police, 45-year-old Larry Paul Shouest, a Hammond resident, started those fires in the pool supply section of each store. They say Schouest confessed to starting chemical fires with pool supplies to cause a distraction while he stole laptops.
According to Hammond Fire Department Chief John Thomas, a swift response from store employees and first responders in each instance minimized the damage and helped everyone in each store escape unharmed, but the risk from chemical fires is much worse than a normal fire.
“It is an inhalation hazard,” Thomas said. “It can burn into the lungs … so it really, at a large scale, it could amount to something.”
Police arrested Schouest and booked him for aggravated arson, felony criminal damage and felony theft charges. He is currently being held in the parish jail.
“This very serious incident could have turned out much worse,” Ponchatoula Police Chief Bry Layrisson said. "This man put innocent lives in danger to commit a theft.
Fire officials say there will be no long-term effects from the fires in those stores and are reminding people to always make sure they’re in a well-ventilated space when handling chemicals like chlorine.