Four homeless after Bernardston blaze

BERNARDSTON — Brandon Ovitt was at work at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant early Tuesday morning when he got a call from his girlfriend, Nikki Clark, telling him their home was on fire.

She also told him that she and their 3-year-old chocolate lab PJ, as well as their two tenants, had gotten out safely and were OK.

The four were left homeless after the early morning blaze all but destroyed the two-family, balloon-framed home at 64 South St. (Routes 5 and 10). The house was left standing, but everything in it was destroyed, according to Bernardston Fire Chief Peter A. Shedd.

Dozens of firefighters from Bernardston and surrounding towns fought the fire in freezing temperatures as the sun rose behind an overcast sky.

Ovitt, 28, stood in the street at 8 a.m., seemingly still in shock about three hours after the fire started, as firefighters scurried around him and he watched his dream go up in smoke.

“We just got our Christmas tree this weekend and put Christmas presents under it,” said Ovitt. “But at least everyone is safe.”

Ovitt, who grew up in Bernardston and has been a call firefighter with the Bernardston Fire Department for the past 12 years (since he was 16), appeared heartbroken as he watched a firefighter at the top of the ladder on a ladder truck sink the pick end of an ax, over and over, into his new but blackened roof to ventilate and release gases.

The top floor of the two-story home was destroyed by the fire and the main floor was severely water damaged, and Shedd said shortly after the fire had been extinguished that the house was too damaged to be inhabited.

Ovitt said he was waiting to hear from his insurance company to see if it would cover temporary housing costs. Until then, he said he would stay with family.

The two-alarm fire was called in around 5:30 a.m. and a second alarm followed a short time later. Firefighters from Bernardston, Greenfield, Turners Falls, Northfield, Gill, Erving, Leyden, Shelburne Center, Colrain, South Deerfield, Brattleboro, Vt., and Guilford, Vt., responded. Baystate Health Ambulance and Northfield Ambulance waited on scene and Bernardston and state police also responded.

His father Bill Ovitt, who lives around the corner on Route 10 in Bernardston, said Ovitt, Clark and PJ could stay with him for now.

“You can replace things, but you can’t replace people or pets,” said the relieved father. “I’m just grateful everyone is fine.”

The younger Ovitt said his tenant, a young man who had been living in the larger apartment at the front of the home with his fiancee, had already gone to stay with friends or family by 8 a.m.

“I’ve only been here two years,” said Ovitt. “We were living in the back apartment. I don’t know what happened.”

Ovitt said he spent the last two years doing renovations and repairs to the house.

“It was a fixer-upper,” he said. “I had put on a new roof, installed new furnaces and put on a new deck.”

A graduate of Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls and Nashville Auto-Diesel College in Tennessee, Ovitt said when he arrived home to the fire, his instinct was to “jump right in” like he does when he is responding to a fire as a call firefighter.

“I had to pull myself back,” he said. “There were plenty of firefighters already doing the work, and doing it well.”

Ovitt said his smoke detectors probably saved lives.

The fire

Shedd said the fire started in the chimney in Ovitt’s apartment and quickly travel ed to other areas of his apartment, as well as the other apartment, by way of the roof.

Shedd said that’s what often happens in balloon-frame wood structures, because there’s a lot of void space, so there’s a lot of places the fire can travel and it makes it more difficult for firefighters to chase or get ahead of a fire.

“We worked hard when we first got there,” said Shedd. “We had to chase the fire from room to room.”

It took about two hours to get the fire under control, said Shedd.

He said one Greenfield firefighter was hurt when he twisted his ankle, but no one else was hurt.

“It was a tough time of day to get (Bernardston) call firefighters to respond, because most were on their way to or at work already, so they didn’t get the tone right away,” said Shedd. “We had to call other departments.”

Shedd said several firefighters were still on scene at 1 p.m., and would probably be there most of the afternoon to make sure the fire didn’t reignite.

“They lost everything in the fire,” said Shedd. “That’s the tough part.”

He said the Red Cross arrived later in the morning, but Ovitt, Clark and their tenants had places to stay.

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