Fire in Bellows Falls destroys auto shop, leaves one person homeless
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | January 03,2013
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
A structure fire in Bellows Falls broke out at 8 Island St., just before noon Wednesday and smoke could be seen far away.The dowtown fire involved a commercial building as well as an auto repair shop and artist studios
BELLOWS FALLS — An extremely smoky and stubborn fire wreaked havoc on a commercial building in The Island, a downtown area of Bellows Falls on Wednesday.
Bellows Falls Fire Chief William Weston, who managed the firefighting effort, said that two firefighters were taken to the hospital, but that he didn’t know the circumstances of their injuries.
The fire appeared to have started in an auto repair shop operated by Robert “Bob” Blodgett of Grafton, who said gasoline leaked onto a drop light he was using to work on his van and ignited the fire. The fire started shortly after 11:30 a.m.
Blodgett, who sat in his truck and watched firefighters from about 10 area communities battle the blaze, said that one side of his face was sore from the flames.
“The fire was this close,” said Blodgett, measuring off two feet with his hand. He said that several Harley Davidson motorcycles, including a $46,000 machine he owned, were inside the building that burned. He said some of the motorcycles were insured.
Blodgett, who said he buys and repairs vehicles and sells them at auction, said he happened to be working on his own van when the fire broke out. The fire quickly spread to his van, he said.
“I ran to get the extinguisher, but the van was already engulfed,” he said. “It happened so quick,” he said, noting that one side of his face was “tender” after the fire.
Blodgett said he had been renting space in the building for about two to three years.
Blodgett escaped with no serious injuries.
At times, firefighters, who brought in at least three ladder trucks and numerous other trucks, battled the blaze in a thick, acrid grey haze that filled the nearby downtown business district. At other times, firefighters were fighting the fire in a snowstorm. The fire appeared to be under control, and then would flare up in a great cloud of smelly smoke. Traffic was diverted away from The Square, to allow firefighters to lay more hose and keep spectators away.
The fire threatened to spread to other neighboring buildings, including NAPA Auto Parts, the “Oh Zone,” a consignment store, and Our Place, the local drop-in center, as well as a building owned by the Sustainable Valley Group that is undergoing renovations.
Firefighters confined the blaze to the building, which was located close to the historic Bellows Falls Canal.
Doug Bishop, a spokesman for the Red Cross of Vermont and New Hampshire of the Upper Valley, said there was one person living in an apartment in the building. He said the Red Cross had arranged temporary lodging for the tenant, as well as given the person a food and clothing allowance.
Bishop said Wednesday’s fire was the 14th time in as many days that the Red Cross had been asked for assistance in the region.
While wintertime is the busiest time for the Red Cross, Bishop said, demand for services is up, noting the Red Cross has been asked to help at about 140 fires a year, and 120 of those were residential in nature.
The Red Cross is sometimes called in to help the first responders, he said, in addition to residents of a building.
Blodgett said that his landlord, Paul Anderson, lives in Washington state. According to town records, the owner is House On The Green LLC, said Ellen Howard, the town’s zoning officer.
The building has housed different things over the years, she said, and currently had a permit for one apartment and the motor vehicle repair shop. She said she believed there was also an artist’s studio in the building.
Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake was at the town hall when the fire broke out. Originally people thought it was one of the railroad’s locomotives starting up because of all the smoke, but then he realized it was a building, not a train.
“When I got there, the building was fully involved,” said Lake.
Weston said the town of Rockingham brought in its excavator to pull off the roof of the building, so that firefighters could get to the most stubborn part of the fire.
He said a crew would be at the scene on a fire watch.
Weston said the building wasn’t a total loss, but was destroyed in the area of the auto shop.
“It’s still standing,” he said, noting the department hadn’t been able to start its investigation into the cause of the fire.