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Brush fires all over county keep area’s firefighters busy

Statewide burn ban ordered in Vermont as dry conditions continue

With additional reporting by Randolph T. Holhut and Jeff Potter.

WEST BRATTLEBORO—Area fire departments were busy on Monday afternoon dealing with three brush fires in Windham County.

Conditions around Vermont are so dry that a statewide ban on outdoor burning was ordered by the state Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, effective Tuesday afternoon, the first time such a ban has been issued since 2005.

The biggest fire on Monday scorched nearly 50 acres at 493 Melchen Rd. in West Brattleboro, near Hinesburg and Waubanong roads. According to the 2014 Brattleboro Grand List, the property is owned by Temple Peterson and Siiri Lane.

It was contained around 5:40 p.m., according to Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard, whose department was at the scene assisting the Brattleboro Fire Department.

In all, about 100 firefighters were involved in the effort.

In addition to Putney, departments responding to the three-alarm fire included Guilford, Dummerston, Vernon, Westminster, Marlboro, and Halifax, as well as Winchester, Keene, Spofford, Chesterfield, and Hinsdale, N.H.

A crew of 38 firefighters from Massachusetts, including Bernardston, Northfield, Greenfield, Leyden, South Deerfield, Heath, and Turners Falls, arrived around 6 p.m. to help “mop up,” according to Goddard.

The cause of the fire, reported around 1 p.m., was a downed power line, according to Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi.

‘Very steep and rugged terrain’

As fire crews battled the brush fire on top of the hill, it was hurry up and wait for those in the staging area.

Over the rumbling hum of diesel engines, snippets of radio calls could be heard. Intermixed with orders from Bucossi from the fire site, emergency dispatch called away responders to other emergencies, including a suspected drug overdose.

A small bus pulled up to the staging area carrying firefighters from Massachusetts. They piled out of the vehicle, filling the road with men in bright yellow gear.

“I can’t decide if they’re yellow jackets or bumblebees,” one firefighter joked.

This relief team went over the whole burned area before they were withdrawn at about 8 p.m., checking for any remaining fire or embers that could reignite the blaze.

Fire crews returned on Tuesday to make sure everything was fully extinguished.

Little wind stirred near the ground of Melchen Road, but the tops of the trees along Hinesburg and Melchen roads told a different story.

There, the branches swayed, hinting at the strong breeze stirring the top of the hill where firefighters worked to contain the large brush fire.

Another firefighter at the staging area commented that, up until Monday, the brush fires in Brattleboro had been easily contained.

“I guess our luck ran out,” he said.

In a news release, Bucossi said the fire “was in some very steep and rugged terrain off the north side of Melchen Road. Though firefighters were able to reach approximately the bottom third of the fire area using four-wheel-drive brush trucks, the rest of the fire was accessed by foot with firefighters carrying ‘bladder bags’ of water on their backs, and rakes and shovels were also carried in.”

Bucossi said that thousands of feet of hose were stretched up both sides of the fire from where 10 brush trucks had to stop.

Using water from a small brook on Melchen Road, three tankers pumped water to the brush trucks at the scene until the fire was contained.

Rescue Inc. treated one firefighter at the scene, and transported four others to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Bucossi said. Three suffered from overexertion, one had a back injury, and another had what was described as “a cardiac issue.”

The Red Cross brought food and bottled water for the crews both Monday and Tuesday.

Worst-case conditions

The hot, dry day contributed to the worst-case scenario for creating an environment hospitable to fire.

In springtime, the deep earth might still be wet from winter’s snows, said one firefighter, but on the top layer all the debris — dead leaves, fallen branches — is dry as paper.

Monday was the first day with temperatures in the low 80s in southern Vermont. That, together with a slight breeze and low humidity, prompted the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y. to post a “red flag” warning for Windham and Bennington counties.

A red flag warning, defined by the National Weather Service, means dangerous fire weather conditions exist in combination: a region getting less than a quarter inch of rain in the five days preceding the warning, temperatures that are higher than 50 degrees, and relative humidity of less than 30 percent.

On Monday, all of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, western Massachusetts, and New York State met the criteria.

That status was unchanged on Tuesday and, as of press time Tuesday night, is expected to continue the rest of the week. No significant rain is expected in the forecast until Sunday, according to the Weather Service.

Busy day

For area firefighters, Monday afternoon began with a three-acre brush fire on Fowler Road, off Route 100 in Whitingham. The first call came in at about 12:13 p.m., and Whitingham and Readsboro fire crews brought that fire under control by the end of the afternoon.

And later Monday afternoon, at 2:41 p.m., NewBrook fire crews responded to Brookline for what ultimately became a three-alarm fire at 156 Grassy Brook Rd., near Harris Hill and Putney Mountain roads.

For artist Sarah Hudock, the blaze “engulfed her land, chicken coop, and nearly her home,” according to a friend, Melissa Caughey, who posted on her behalf on Facebook Tuesday night.

Four of her 26 chickens escaped harm in the fire, but seven experienced “burns, smoke inhalation, burnt feet, burnt feathers, injuries, coughing, and gasping” Caughey wrote.

She said that Hudock — a lover of chickens who creates whimsical and colorful illustrations of them on tin wall hangings and who on her blog calls her potential customers her “peeps” — is working with a local veterinarian to evaluate whether the injured birds will need to be euthanized.

The rest of the flock died in the fire.

Caughey set up a donation page on Hudock’s website: chickenart.com/donate.

“Over 50 volunteer fire fighters and multiple rigs worked to put out the fires,” Caughey wrote. “The flames melted the power lines but she luckily is safe. She is feeling fortunate and unbelievably blessed by God. Thank goodness she was home and awake.”

The fire was ultimately brought under control by the end of the afternoon, but fire crews returned to the scene on Tuesday morning to mop up.

Firefighters were assisted by departments from Townshend, Williamsville, East Dover, Jamaica, Chester, Wardsboro, Saxtons River, South Londonderry, Winhall, Stratton, Rockingham, and North Walpole, N.H.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #304 (Wednesday, May 6, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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