BENNINGTON - More than 100 area firefighters responded to an early morning blaze at LaFlammes furniture store on Friday, which resulted in a total loss after hours were spent battling flames in the negative 10-degree cold.
Officials responded to the scene at approximately 7:48 a.m. as dark smoke poured out of the fully-engulfed building located at 50 Harwood Hill Road, according to the Bennington Police Department.
The response was led by the Bennington Rural Fire Department, who immediately called for mutual aid from multiple surrounding departments including several from nearby Massachusetts and New York, according to BRFD Chief Shawn Gardner.
Below-freezing temperatures and strong winds worsened conditions for firefighters, who remained on the scene for the majority of the day, with traffic shut down at the intersection of Route 67A and Harwood Hill to allow access for emergency vehicles.
"When it comes to cold weather it hampers everything," said Gardner. "It hampers our men, our equipment - everything. It definitely wasn't our friend today."
Fire departments from Pownal; North Bennington; Bennington Village; Williamstown, Mass.; and Hoosick, North Hoosick and Hoosick Falls, N.Y. were also dispatched to the scene, where they spent all morning and into the afternoon offering assistance and equipment, according to Gardner. Additional departments remained on standby.
"We were there from the initial tone until we cleared at about noon," said BVFD Deputy Chief Jeff Vickers, who estimated that 25 members from BVFD were on hand throughout the morning. "We're just there to support them and do whatever they need."
Green Mountain Power was credited by police with shutting off all power to lines near the trouble area, and quickly working to redirect power sources to ensure that nearby homeowners and businesses had power reinstated.
Members of the American Legion set up a temporary shelter for rescue workers to take short breaks, while both Dunkin' Donuts and Price Chopper offered food and drinks. Southwestern Vermont Health Care also delivered 60 hot meals to responders through the American Red Cross.
"It just shows what a wonderful, tight-knit community we have here in the Bennington area," said BPD Chief and Bennington Safety Director Paul Doucette.
"Pownal was really instrumental in putting out this fire, especially," said Doucette, citing the fire company's experience with drafting water from open rivers and ponds when hydrants are not sufficient.
Approximately eight firefighters from PVFD assisted on the scene from the initial response until just after 1 p.m., and also supplied the use of their front-mounted pump truck.
"Almost everything in there - furniture, mattresses and appliances - is all made out of oil-based products, and when that stuff goes up there's no stopping it," said PFD Chief Walter Clark, citing polycarbonate, styrofoam and synthetic fabrics as contributing to the intensity of the blaze.
Once the fire was deemed to be under control, an excavator was brought in by Jerome Construction to tear down the structure and ensure that the fire was completely extinguished.
"They're going to come in and open the building up for us so we can see what we're dealing with," said Gardner. The cause of fire was still unknown on Friday evening, pending an inspection by state police fire investigators.
"It started in the center-front part of the building [police] told me, and the only thing that is in that area is the furnace, but nothing has been determined," said Christopher LaFlamme, who owns a total of five stores in the area along with his wife Angela.
LaFlamme said he received a call alerting him to the fire just after 8 a.m. and did not arrive at the scene from his home in Wells, Vt., until more than an hour later.
"I think it was a police officer who was driving by and noticed that one of the doors on the building was open or off and he began to investigate," said LaFlamme, of the rolling fire which created flames reaching more than twice the height of the roof, according to estimates by police.
Twelve employees worked at the Bennington location, which was scheduled to open at 9 a.m. on the morning of the fire. There were no injuries reported by anyone involved in the incident.
"When stuff like this happens, what really matters becomes very apparent," said LaFlamme. "Everyone is safe - that's what's important."
Regarding plans to rebuild the location, which opened just 18 months ago, LaFlamme said he needs time to evaluate the situation with his family.
"[Rebuilding] would seem like the logical thing to do, but this is a pretty substantial loss and I want my family and I to sit down and really discuss this," he said.
Of the estimated value of damage done to the property, LaFlamme was unsure but said unofficial estimates of $500,000 to $1 million that were suggested by firefighters could be accurate.
"It's very early to evaluate," he said. "Until I have professionals come in and advise me what they think, I don't even know."
The family has operated their longest-standing location in Cambridge for 12 years, and also has stores in Granville, Whitehall and Rutland, the latter of which has been open for just three months.
"This was our biggest store and probably our flagship in terms of sales," said LaFlamme, of the company which employs 28 people in total.
"We have told our employees that we will still be fulfilling their needs, we have enough room to fit them in at our other stores," said LaFlamme.
In the days ahead, the Cambridge location will also be managing previous orders placed through the Bennington store.
"We would just like to send a 'thank you' from our family to all of the surrounding communities," said LaFlamme. "It was just a remarkable group of people who were very courageous and helpful to us during this time."
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