Fire quickly guts Claverack house, leaving three without a home

CLAVERACK–A house fire at 6034 Route 9H south of the hamlet stopped southbound traffic from the intersection at Route 23 for over an hour, the afternoon of March 2.

The fire has been ruled accidental and the cause narrowed down to improper disposal of ashes from the woodstove or a short in an electrical outlet, according to Claverack Second Assistant Chief Jeff Keeler, who was in charge at the scene.

The one-story wood-framed house is owned by Matt Michaels and was occupied by three tenants, all of whom work next door at the Coyote Flaco, a Mexican restaurant.

Oscar Alvarado and Marcello Diaz were on the job when a customer alerted them to the blaze, and they called 911.

The third tenant was out of town at the time, said the assistant chief.

The call went out to Claverack firefighters at 2:21 p.m.

Churchtown was summoned under automatic mutual aid. Greenport Station #1 was called in with its Firefighter Assist and Search (FAST) Team, Greenport Station #2 and Mellenville were summoned with their tankers.

The blaze started in the living room on the south side of the small house closest to the restaurant.

Assistant Chief Keeler said the fire got into the attic and “we had to chase it.”

After firefighters used a chain saw to cut a four-foot-square hole in the roof of the main part of the house, 16-foot flames shot through the opening and burned for 15 minutes.  As the flames diminished, smoke billowed and turned from grey to black, signifying high heat and plenty of hydrocarbons, according to Paul Beaumont, a former Hudson fire chief who had come to the scene to check on a nearby house for which he is the caretaker.

Mr. Beaumont said that the “venting” created by the hole allows smoke to escape and can reduce the amount of damage, although he surmised from the look of the house that it would probably not be salvageable.

With no hydrants nearby, firefighters doused the flames with water brought by a shuttle of Greenport tankers. The water was emptied into portable ponds that fed the hoses.

National Grid shut off the electricity. Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus entered the house to douse any remaining flames. Some of them were members of the Greenport FAST Team that is specially trained to rescue any firefighters who go down.

At one point a high-pitched alarm went off. It turned out to be the PASS, or personal alert safety system, which sounds if a firefighter wearing it is immobile for 30 seconds or more. In this case the alarm came from gear left on the front bumper of one of the fire trucks. Someone had forgotten to disable it.

Shortly after 3 p.m. the flames were no longer visible.  Firefighters were inside “overhauling, getting the hot spots, opening walls and ceilings, making sure everything’s out,” said Mr. Beaumont.  Soon firefighters appeared in the hole in the roof, still wearing their masks. They used their long yellow “pike poles,” shafts with hooks on the end, to peel off the roof tiles and charred plywood, exposing the blackened rafters.

One fire truck blew its horn. Mr. Beaumont said it did not signify anything, but he said that if all the trucks blew their horns at once it would alert firefighters to get out of the building. “At that point the fight changes from offensive to defensive,” he said.

As he turned to leave, Mr. Beaumont’s pager went off, and for a moment it sounded like there was another fire on nearby Miller Road. Then it seemed more probable that a smoke alarm had gone off without explanation, “but you’ve got to investigate,” he said.

Mr. Alvarado and Mr. Diaz said they had lost everything in the fire and would be staying with friends. Fire had ruined the house in less than an hour.

The Red Cross was called in to assist the residents of the home.

The Columbia County Cause and Origin Team investigated.

About 35 firefighters were on the scene. No one was hurt.

Firefighters were clear from the scene at 7:02 p.m.

Diane Valden contributed to this report.

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