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Firefighters busy in extreme cold; blaze destroys a Middlebury garage

Property owner Wade Weathers watches as Middlebury firefighters LeRoy Graham and Jeff Carpenter direct water onto the flames inside an Old College Farm Road garage on Saturday morning. Firefighters battled the blaze, which claimed the garage but didn’t result in any injuries, as well as temperatures of at least 15 degrees below zero.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — The coldest weekend of the year so far was also one of the busiest weekends for the Middlebury Fire Department.

Most of the calls were related to alarms and water problems. But a call on Saturday morning, when the temperature was at least 15 degrees below zero, was an actual fire that brought out more than three dozen firefighters from three departments and claimed a garage on Old College Farm Road.

“The cold like that is almost unbearable,” Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw said. “That’s what we train for.”

Tongues of flame lap out of the windows of this Middlebury garage Saturday morning. No one was hurt, and firefighters doused the flames before they spread to other structures. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

The Middlebury Fire Department responded to 11 calls between 1 a.m. on Saturday and 7:30 a.m. on Monday. The coincided with a deep freeze that set in on Friday and saw temperatures drop to around 20 below zero Fahrenheit Saturday morning before rebounding to the mid-30s above zero on Sunday afternoon.

Around 8:40 a.m. on Saturday the Middlebury firefighters were called to a structure fire on Old College Farm Road, a one-block lane off Seminary Street Extension opposite the old Mooney Mansion that Middlebury College purchased last year.

Flames were shooting out of the front of the garage and huge clouds of brown-grey smoke were billowing skyward when firefighters arrived. They quickly put a pumper truck in action and the first two firefighters on the scene began directing water into the garage bays and onto the ceiling — expertly dousing the fire.

“We read a fire, then we attack it,” Chief Shaw explained. “That was an offensive fire — we immediately go in and knock it down. Some fires are defensive, where we just try to keep the fire from spreading.”

Three bystanders, including the owner of the garage, Wade Weathers, stood in the road watching the drama unfold. One of the bystanders noticed that a firefighter hadn’t had time to put on his gloves, so he gave the firefighter his own gloves before head off to his nearby home to get another pair.

A few of the 38 firefighters who responded to the Old College Farm Road fire on Saturday morning emerge from the smoke as they move gingerly on the icy scene.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

Shaw called the structure a total loss, valued at $100,000. Although the structure was classified as a garage because it housed vehicles, the chief said the owners had installed a beautiful three-season porch on the back side of the structure that made it more than your typical garage.

“I feel bad for the family,” he said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Shaw noted that the investigators were from the Addison County Firefighters Association, and that this county is one of the few in Vermont to have such an investigative unit.

In addition to 18 Middlebury firefighters, 10 members of the New Haven Fire Department and 10 from Cornwall arrived on scene to help out.

It wasn’t the first call that MFD had answered that morning — or even the second. Shaw and company responded to a 1 a.m. call, then a few hours later to a call in East Middlebury, neither of which were as pressing as the active fire. Shaw said most of the 11 calls over the weekend were for frozen pipes and tripped alarms. One alarm went off at Porter Hospital alerting officials to a frozen sprinkler system, but Shaw said that was quickly remedied. There were also calls for gas leaks and one for an LP gas fire.

Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw directs his departments attack on Saturday morning’s fire — one of 11 calls the MFD responded to this weekend.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

Shaw said the extreme cold presented challenges to fighting Saturday’s blaze. Firefighters have to keep the water flowing once they turn it on just so it doesn’t freeze in the lines. Plus firefighters need to take care around the ice that inevitable spreads across the scene.

“We end up creating an instant ice rink,” he said. “You have to adjust.”

Firefighters from the three departments that responded to Saturday morning’s fire on Old College Farm Road had to keep the water flowing once it started or else the minus-15-degree weather would freeze it right in the hoses.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

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