By Eric Francis, Standard Correspondent
HARTLAND – Four people were left homeless but unhurt Friday evening when a fire broke out in a closet of their three-unit apartment house and then rapidly spread throughout the second floor of the century-old structure near the end of Gilson Farm Road within view of Interstate 91 and Route 5.
The resident of the apartment where the fire began initially told dispatchers that he thought he’d put the fire out. But even as the first Hartland Fire engines were responding from both the Four Corners and North Hartland stations he called back and said for some reason the amount of smoke was increasing and he was notifying the residents of the other two apartments to evacuate.
Responding Hartland firefighters ordered a first alarm struck at 9:25 p.m. and when Hartland Engine 2 pulled up to 8 Gilson Farm Road at 9:31 p.m. flames were visible from the attic.
“Upon our arrival we found heavy fire in the building,” said Hartland Assistant Fire Chief Scott Bowers, noting that the antique building was originally built using a technique, “we call `balloon frame construction’ with one layer on top of another. It had been added onto and added onto (over the years).”
The balloon frame method, although common in many of Vermont’s oldest houses and commercial buildings, has long since been dropped precisely because it allows fires to rapid spread upwards along wooden support members.
“We don’t know how it began,” Bowers said, adding, “There was nothing suspicious about it but we are just trying to determine what did cause it. I’m still waiting to hear from the fire investigator (so for now) it is undetermined.”
The building was owned by Elizabeth Day of White River Junction and the displaced residents were being sheltered by the American Red Cross in the wake of the fire.
“It is uninhabitable and they are permanently out,” Bowers said of the residents, adding that the building appears to be beyond repair. “I don’t believe it is going to be salvageable at all. The total second floor is severe char,” he noted.
“Apartment number 3 is a total loss. He was able to get a few items out but that was it,” Bowers said of the unit where the fire began. (The woman living in) Apartment 2 was able to salvage quite a bit of her stuff. In the last apartment (occupied by a young couple) the entire second floor is gone and that includes all their clothes and anything else,” Bowers said.
Hartland’s volunteer firefighters were joined at the scene by mutual aid engine and water tanker crews from Windsor and Woodstock while Hartford sent their ladder truck and a tanker. The chiefs of both the Hartford and Windsor fire departments also responded to help at the scene. West Windsor sent an engine to cover Hartland’s empty fire stations while operations were on-going.
“It was just difficult because of the balloon frame construction and trying to gain access to the attic,” Bowers recalled. The fire was knocked down and declared under control just after 11 p.m. but Hartland crews were working on overhaul and salvage operations until after one o’clock in the morning.