BENNINGTON -- When firefighters responded to the blaze that eventually consumed LaFlammes furniture store in Bennington, they did so in sub-zero temperatures, which can be some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions to combat fires.
"The elements aren't always your friend," said Bennington Rural Fire Department Chief Shawn Gardner. According to Gardner, the cold caused damage and malfunctions in equipment, dangerous conditions where the water used to fight the fire was freezing, and, of course, increased strain on the over 100 firefighters from eight departments in three states who responded to the call. "As far as pumping water, to the men, to the trucks, its horrible," said Gardner.
BRFD led the response early Friday morning, at approximately 7:48 a.m., but immediately called for mutual aid from multiple surrounding departments, said Gardner, including Bennington Village, North Bennington, Pownal, Williamstown, Mass., and Hoosick, North Hoosick, and Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Most firefighters remained on the scene until the fire was cleared at around noon, with some remaining on location to provide support.
Because of the cold and the length of time they were out there, Gardner pointed to how important it was to rotate firefighters to make sure that that everyone stayed relatively fresh and warm. "Even the fire police were rotated through, and the [Bennington Police Department] was brought in for traffic," said Gardner. Even so, the cold had a severe impact on the firefighters' equipment. "We had a ton of air packs that froze up, the cold just kills the batteries," said Gardner, who noted that several oxygen regulators froze and will have to be replaced.
Gardner said water pumps would also freeze when not in use for more than a few seconds, which was a constant danger as firefighters fought to contain the blaze. Even faced with considerable adversity, firefighters never lost sight of their goal. "When the fire is going, that's our priority, to get the fire out," said Gardner.
The water continued to be a problem after it left the pumps as well. Frozen water can put a heavy strain on the structure of buildings in a situation such as this. Additionally, water flowing onto Route 67A and freezing eventually necessitated calling the Town of Bennington to send a grader to re-grade the road, which shut down the route for a length of time.
Despite the difficult conditions, firefighters were able to extinguish the fire with the help of several community organizations. Members of the American Legion set up a temporary shelter for workers to take short breaks, Dunkin Donuts and Price Chopper provided coffee and food, and Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the not-for-profit that operates Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, partnered with the American Red Cross to donate 60 meals to responders.
"It's a team effort," said Gardner, between the fire departments, and the BPD, and all the community volunteers who came out to support the responders. "The community came together," he said, "I just wish they would come together more often, and that it wouldn't take something like this."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB