“FIRE” IS TOO SMALL A WORD to encompass what took place on Saturday, June 4 at Pete Mitchell’s Headwater Cider Orchard on Forget Road in East Hawley. It was a controlled burn, to be sure, with at least seven fire companies participating in addition to Hawley, but there was nothing controlled about the way the historic old house went up once the training exercises were complete, the perimeters were set and the flames were given free reign within them.
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Participating Towns included:
The house burn has been in the works for well over a year, with active planning and preparation under way for the last six months. According to materials provided by Hawley Fire Chief Greg Cox, a number of factors had to be addressed prior to staging the event. These included:
► Permitting (DEP) — A permit was required from the Department of Environmental Protection for the potential days of the burn. This permit was conditional on weather conditions and air quality on the day of the event.
► Pre-Requisite Training (NFPA) — In addition to the training to be provided via the burn itself, participating departments were required by the National Fire Protection Association to demonstrate that their members were proficient on a number of pre-requisite skills as well. These included exercises such as “Fire Scene Setup,” “Forcible Entry,” “Interior Search,” “Firefighter Rescue,” “Thermal Imaging,” “Horizontal Ventilation,” “SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) Training,” “Overhaul” and “Lighting Scene Operations.” Certification in these prerequisites was addressed in training sessions that had been conducted earlier by participating Towns.
► Coordination of Equipment, Supplies and Roles — This was a highly-choreographed effort. Water, that was used in great quantities to establish a perimeter for the burn and keep the flames from spreading, had to be transported to the location at 112 Forget Road from Cox Pond (Corner of Pond and Buckland Roads), a distance of about a mile. This involved tanker equipment driving up and down Pond from Cox Pond to the intersection of Pond and Forget, which was used as a “dump station.” And then there were hoses running down Forget to the burn site, and there was more equipment at that site to direct the water to the fire.
Four area Fire Officers had specific roles during the burn:
- Ashfield Fire Chief Del Haskins served as Safety Officer;
- Colrain Fire Chief Nick Anzuoni commanded the live fire (Training) exercises;
- Hawley Fire Chief Greg Cox served as Incident Commander; and,
- Colrain Fire Lieutenant Kevin Worden led their RIT (Rapid Intervention Team) whose role was to rescue injured firefighters if it became necessary.
In addition to the firefighting equipment, ATV’s were provided to transport firefighters and support crews, bottled water was provided and distributed to the thirsty, a rest tent with cots was set up for the weary, and sandwiches were proffered to the hungry.
Canceled on May 28 because of inhospitable weather conditions, the burn finally took place on Saturday, June 4. Assembly and set up began at the Headwater site at about 8:00 am, although firefighters and support personnel had attended briefings earlier.
Once the tanker shuttle got going and there was a steady flow of water to the pumpers at the burn site, the first half of the morning was devoted to live fire training. Less experienced firefighters from different departments, including three from Hawley, were paired with experienced firefighters from Colrain to get practical experience in what actual fire conditions are like inside a burning building. Small fires of hay and pallets were set, the fire teams took hoses and tools into the building, they got to observe how fire behaves as it grows and how disorienting smoke can be, and then got to put out the fires with advice from the experienced firefighters. The RIT team stood by inside with another charged hose to control the fire if it became necessary.
It can be said, however, that those who observed the Firefighter Rescue exercise thought it was real until they realized that the person who played the role of “victim” was unharmed in any way.
After multiple training evolutions, the live fire exercises stopped about 10:30 am, all firefighters were ordered out of the house, and the main fire was set. The smoke increased dramatically in volume, changing from white to black. Splotches of orange started popping out here and there. And then flames and smoke began shooting up the sides of the house and through the roof — in huge, frenzied billows rushing skyward.
For a while there was a concern about smoke at ground level, and observers and firefighters alike had to move this way and that as the wind kept shifting around. Soon after, the fire became so hot that the flames and smoke were vaulted upwards, first, reaching 30-50 feet above the ground before they were influenced by the wind.
Then came the time when the old house was fully engulfed, and the heat radiating from it was such that anyone standing within 150 feet of it without firefighting gear had to keep changing position to stay comfortable and secure.
As predicted by Greg Cox, the fire had largely spent itself by 12:45 pm. Aside from a deep bed of intensely hot coals in its basement, the only remains of the house that could be seen above ground were a bathtub and two standing chimneys. While a few of the trees surrounding the house had been scorched during the blaze, the firefighters from Hawley and the seven surrounding Towns had saved everything that needed to be saved, including the power and telephone lines running down the street within 60 feet of that old house on Forget Road.
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