Nine departments battle Rt. 7 blaze

FERRISBURGH — A Ferrisburgh fire that started just before 11 o’clock on Sunday night burned to the ground the rear of a rambling Route 7 structure and badly damaged the rest of it. The conflagration destroyed many valuable tractors, cars and equipment stored there, and it is forcing a marine sales and service business renting a storefront — Eriksen’s Crow’s Nest Marina — to relocate.
Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager said there was nothing suspicious about the fire’s origin, nor was there anything immediately to pinpoint its cause. He said on Tuesday investigators and insurance adjusters would be on the scene any day.
Building owner Peter Hawkins said that on Friday he had turned off the power to the rear of the structure, where the fire started. But Wager said investigators always at least consider wiring in an older building — the front dates back more than 85 years, and various pieces had been added since, including Hawkins’ large storage and repair garage to the rear.
“I’m not ruling out wiring,” Wager said, adding, “The fact is it’s a repair shop. There are a number of other things that could start it, too.”
The blaze took firefighters from Ferrisburgh and eight other departments six hours to bring under control because of hard-to-access attics in the additions between a large section to the rear and the boat business in the front.
Vermont State and Vergennes police closed Route 7 for six hours, from about 11 p.m. on Sunday to around 5 a.m. on Monday. About 3,000 Green Mountain Power customers in the area were without electricity for about an hour because Wager had to ask GMP to shut off power to allow firefighters to attack the fire safely.
A transmission line runs directly across the front of the building, where, because of tight quarters on either side, firefighters had to set up their biggest equipment in the highway and attack the blaze from the front.
“Green Mountain Power was able to do very good work for us,” Wager said. “We had to do it because of safety.”
After about an hour, Wager said GMP was able to limit the outage to about two-dozen customers between Little Chicago Road to the north and Little Otter Creek to the south.
A neighbor walking her dog across the road alerted firefighters. Wager lives close by, and he was on the scene in minutes; by then, the rear was already almost completely ablaze.
“Of course, everything in it had fuel tanks,” said Hawkins.
Wager first saw the flames from his garage.
“I hopped in my truck and opened my garage door, and all I saw was fire,” he said. “I knew I had my hands full.”
Pete Hawkins’ brother Chet Hawkins, the Ferrisburgh town clerk, lives about 30 feet south of the building. A relative on the Ferrisburgh Volunteer Fire Department called Chet Hawkins and told him he should get up and out.
Hawkins described what he then witnessed — flames shooting 50 feet or more into the sky.
“The whole back part, the barn part, the garage part, was on fire, and it was just rolling and rolling. Pretty soon it burned through the roof, and the fire was really going. And the door came down so the air could really get into it,” Hawkins said. “It was just unbelievable.”
Firefighters knew immediately there was no hope for the rear of the building, but quickly recognized another danger.
“Our first responsibility was to protect Chet’s house,” Wager said.
By then, most of the eight other departments who responded had arrived, and a big Vergennes truck set up out front and began heavy pumping.
Wager said firefighters fortunately mostly handled the blaze in the rear structure in 45 minutes, but not before some of the siding on a rear addition to Hawkins’ home partially melted.
“It was unbelievably hot when this part was burning, and then as soon as the fire subsided here … the danger went away,” Chet Hawkins said. “But for a while you really wondered. Good thing it wasn’t windy.”
For a moment firefighters thought they had the battle won, but a long night was just beginning. A two-story cinderblock firewall separated the rear from the many other additions, but the flames jumped the firewall and began making their way forward through the hard-to-reach attics.
Fires became hard to find; the work got tricky.
“The fire can advance and you don’t even know it,” Wager said. “It advances right over your head,”
And the night posed some danger.
“I told some firefighters they had to get off a roof,” Wager said. “I want everybody to go home.”
Another problem developed: A water main broke in Vergennes. Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur, who was handling the water supply, improvised by having firefighters pull water out of Little Otter Creek and the nearby Hawkins Road slang.
“He did a good job taking care of the coordination,” Wager said.
As well as preserving as much of the structure as possible, Wager said firefighters focused on protecting the property of business owner Tom Eriksen. That effort proved largely successful, and items were being removed from the smoky, water-soaked front of the building on Monday morning.
“Tom’s inventory and boat and forklift, we were able to save that,” Wager said.
Peter Hawkins said Eriksen told him he planned to share space at Marine Plus further north on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh, a business owned by his tenant’s son.
Finally, by 5 a.m. most firefighters had left; they had come from Addison, New Haven, Bristol, Middlebury, Monkton, Charlotte and Shelburne as well as Vergennes.
“It was a matter of the firemen going in and finding each hot pocket and they would put foam on it and the fire would go out,” Chet Hawkins said. “They finally got it subdued around 4 o’clock.”
He praised the firefighters’ effort, especially given the hand they were dealt.
“They did a fantastic job. All the departments got here real quick. They put a lot of water on it,” Chet Hawkins said. “Just unfortunately the way the building was designed they couldn’t get to where the fire was.”
The fire was the fourth to strike in a three-quarter-mile stretch in Ferrisburgh’s central Route 7 village. In February 2005, the town’s Grange Hall burned to the ground; in June 2007, fire consumed the Ferrisburgh Roadhouse, formerly Burdick’s Country Kitchen; and two years ago a smaller blaze damaged Jimmo’s Motel, which since then was burned intentionally by the town fire department.
On Monday morning, all that was left of Peter Hawkins’ building’s back third and his and a half-dozen other residents’ belongings were charred remains.
Smoke still curled up around the blackened hulks of one 10-year-old and several antique tractors, a 1942 road grader that was a prized possession of one of Hawkins’ friends, a Bobcat, a bucket loader, Hawkins’ wife’s Chevrolet Corvette, a recently restored 1969 Ford Mustang, a drill press, a welder, a fork lift, lawn mowers, a row of tool boxes, and even a collection of antique license plates.
The area served as storage, a part-time business, and a pastime for Peter Hawkins, whose father bought the original building in 1927, added to it over the years, and sold it to his sons about 40 years ago.
“Mostly I store stuff for people. And I tinker some, and my son fixes stuff here some,” said Peter Hawkins, who had since bought out his brother.
He is unsure how much insurance will provide him.
“I don’t have much, like everybody. So I don’t know. We’re waiting to hear from that,” Hawkins said. “But I don’t expect too much.”
But he plans to rebuild, to allow his life to go on.
“(I’ll put up) something, enough so I can tinker around,” Peter Hawkins said. “I couldn’t stand just to sit around and do nothing.”
On Monday morning, a half-dozen of the Hawkins brothers’ friends stood with them next to what the fire had left them.
“It’s really something to see all this stuff you’ve lived with all your life gone,” Chet Hawkins said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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