By DAVID DELCORE
BARRE TOWN – A fast-moving fire of undetermined origin gutted a two-story contemporary log cabin on Phelps Road this morning leaving a young family of six homeless heading into the holidays. Damian Barnett, who spent “seven months of 14-hour days” building the home three years ago, watched the building and virtually all of its contents go up in smoke in the span of a couple of excruciating hours.
With his partner, Kaysie Breer, standing at his side, Barnett watched helplessly as firefighters from six area departments scrambled to get the fire that he called in shortly before 9 a.m. under control. That never happened and by early afternoon a town-owned excavator had toppled the charred shell of the once-spacious home.
“We couldn’t safely put the fire out without tearing it (the house) down,” Barre Town Fire Chief Chris Violette said of a chore that was largely finished by 1:30 p.m. The early afternoon demolition project, which involved a town-owned excavator, followed a morning spent trying to put out a stubborn fire that appears to have started in the home’s lowest level and eventually ended in a huge smoldering pile of oversized logs.
Violette said fighting the fire was a challenge because it quickly burned through the home’s first and second floors on its way to the roof. Though the heaviest flames had been doused by 11 a.m., Violette said at that point there were still plenty of work to do and no easy way to do it. With the floors destroyed, Violette said going into the home wasn’t an option and firefighters were forced t try with limited success to find a good way to get at the burning roof before eventually giving up and calling in the excavator.
While firefighters were still trying to do their best to save the structure, Barnett was on the phone with his insurance company, Breer was struggling to keep her composure, and Barnett’s mother, Kim Menard, was wondering how the young couple was going to break the news to at least three of their four children – Matthew, 10, Lindsey, 5, Colin, 2, and six-month-old Camdyn.
“How do you tell your kids when they get out of school that they don’t have a house now?” she asked. “They just lost everything.” Precisely how the fire started remains a mystery, but it appears pretty clear that it began in the basement area.
Barnett said he heard smoke detectors going off and saw heavy smoke in the house after returning from dropping his two older children off at school and his two-year-old at daycare. He immediately called 911, got the dogs out of the house and then headed into a smoke-filled basement with a fire extinguisher that he emptied before leaving the home for the last time.
“It was nothing but black smoke,” he said. “You couldn’t even see the front of the house.” Barnett said he placed a second call to an emergency dispatcher 13 minutes after the first and Violette arrived alone a few minutes later. By that time, he said, the fire was already rolling and the chances of saving the structure given the nature of the construction were minimal at best. Violette said that was a fair assessment.
He said firefighters initially tried to make an “interior attack” but were quickly “driven out” of the home’s smoke-filled basement when fire spread to the ceiling above. According to Violette, Barre Town firefighters were eventually joined at the scene by volunteers, from Berlin, East Montpelier, Williamstown, and Washington as well as full-time firefighters from Barre and tanker trucks ferried water to the scene from a fire hydrant on Balsam Drive.
Violette said reports of “smoke in the basement” aren’t unusual and had there been any mention of flames, the response would have been swifter than it was though it may not have changed the ultimate outcome. Instead of immediately toning out firefighters in Barre, Violette said that call wasn’t made until he arrived at the home.
“As soon as I got on scene and saw that it was a working structure fire I asked for Barre City (firefighters) immediately,” he said. Violette said a state fire investigator would attempt to determine the cause of the blaze, and an official from the American Red Cross was on hand to provide some emergency interim assistance to the family. Meanwhile, Barnett, a professional landscaper, said he would be meeting with a representative of his insurance company on Thursday morning and that he and Breer, a nurse, would be looking for a place to stay in the short term. “There’s six of us,” he said, ticking down the list of items – some practical, some sentimental – that were destroyed in the fire before finally giving up. “It’s all gone,” he said. “Everything.”