Duel blazes split efforts of Conway firefighters

CONWAY — As he rode in a tanker with his fellow firefighters, Deputy Fire Chief Adam Baker saw a column of black smoke cut through the evening sky from three miles away.

With four team members by his side, Baker was headed straight for the smoke, where a double-wide trailer on Main Poland Road was quickly going up in flames.

Baker was one of nine Conway firefighters who had just spent an hour and a half assisting their Ashfield counterparts at a log cabin fire on Briar Hill Road last Friday.

By 4 p.m., as the Conway firefighters rushed to suppress a fire in their own town, it had already been a long day. Earlier that cold afternoon, at 2:20 p.m., the volunteers had been dispatched to provide mutual aid for the Ashfield Fire Department with a fire engine and a tanker.

Five volunteers responded initially — Baker, 38, Capt. Chris Herrmann, 29, Gemma Vanderheld, 28, Sarah Benson, 19, and her father, Capt. Robert Benson.

While the crew headed north, they called for Sunderland Fire Department to provide coverage at the Conway firehouse.

Once the Conway team arrived at Briar Hill Road, they met up with Ashfield Fire Capt. Matt Haskins, who was leading a team attacking the log cabin fire.

Ninety minutes later, an alarm went off in Conway for another fire engulfing a double-wide mobile home, camper and van.

The Conway team’s radios were channeled into a regional tower and the call wasn’t reaching them.

As they worked to control the flames in Ashfield, Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan, who was also on scene, told Baker to call dispatch. There was a working structure fire in Conway.

The Conway firefighters were torn. The Ashfield and Conway fire departments are each other’s number one partners. The Conway firefighters were reluctant to abandon their Ashfield partners.

Ashfield Fire Chief Del Haskins told the Conway firefighters they could leave to assist in their own town, where other mutual aid departments were already headed, according to Baker.

The Conway firefighters jumped in their tanker and headed back home.

Sunderland firefighters covering the Conway station were the first ones to respond, Baker recalled.

While in Ashfield, Baker had assumed a regular firefighter role, but now back in his community he switched roles to operations manager on Main Poland Road.

Herrmann, the Bensons and Vanderheld, on the other hand, continued in their role of directly fighting the fire.

“We had the same role. We just changed location,” said Herrmann, a member of the force for 10 years.

It was Ms. Benson’s first major structure fire. The 19-year-old had already been training for five years. But she has only been active for one year. Firefighters have to be 18 to give full support. Vanderheld is a veteran of the force, serving 13 years.

Yet, there was little the firefighters could do when they finished racing four miles to the fire through the hilly terrain and across slick, snowy roads.

By the time the Conway Fire Department arrived, the double-wide, owned by Ronald Culver, had already collapsed to the ground. The destruction was so extensive that the State Fire Marshal’s Office said it would probably never officially determine the cause.

No people were hurt. The family of eight was away at the time, but a litter of puppies in the home did not make it.

Overcoming the cold

Not only were the firefighters fighting the hot flames, they were combating bone-chilling temperatures. The sub-zero weather that Friday evening had frozen two of three Conway pumper trucks and hoses.

“In my 23 years on the force, this is the first incident where we lost our pumper trucks to the elements,” Baker said.

There were five trucks in Ashfield, all of which froze at some point. In cold temperatures, water has to keep moving to prevent freezing, Herrmann explained. Conway’s Engine 1 was so frozen it didn’t go back into service until the next morning.

Like many rural towns, Conway and Ashfield do not have fire hydrants and rely on tanker trucks to bring water to the fire. Conway has a dry hydrant on North Poland Road, where tankers can hook up and suck water from the South River into the tanker, which then shuttles the water to the pumper trucks at the fire. Sometimes, when it is too cold, the river water turns to ice and firefighters have to use chain saws to cut the ice and stick the hose in for the tanker.

“That’s what makes it tough for small-town communities,” Baker said. “It takes longer when its colder to set up, get the water and fill the tanks.”

Eventually joining them were about 30 firefighters from the South Deerfield, Old Deerfield, Charlemont, Northampton and Shelburne departments.

The Friday night double blazes were unusual and posed a challenge for the local volunteers. Aside from the weather, a major challenge was that the two towns are neighbors and rely on one another, Baker said.

To be working on a fire in their partner town and find out a fire broke out in their own community is rare — and tiring — Baker said.

“We never expected it. It was a one-two punch,” Baker said. “But that’s what we’re here for, to help the community in need.”

Of the 26 volunteers on the Conway Fire Department, nine worked to put out the flames in Ashfield. Eighteen worked in both fires.

“This is a not a one-man show,” Baker said.

It was a long day and night for the volunteers. They started work at 2:20 p.m. in Ashfield. It was 7:30 p.m. by the time they finished in Conway, where they spent 3½ hours.

But the firefighters didn’t go home from the firehouse until 10 p.m.

“When the fire’s over, we’re not done,” Baker said. “We have to make everything ready for the next call.”

Looking back, the two fires helped reaffirm what the firefighters were always taught.

“We’re always trained on how to deal with cold weather,” Herrmann said. “It reminded us why we train for dealing with fire in the cold.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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