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Fire razes antique barn

By Michelle Firmbach

PORTSMOUTH, NH - An early morning, three-alarm fire consumed a two-story antique barn and nearly engulfed two other adjacent buildings at the Urban Forestry Center.
No one was injured in the blaze, which completely devastated the wood-frame storehouse. The barn had been converted to a workshop and a garage for storage of forestry tools and maintenance equipment. The fire destroyed the contents of the barn. Smoke bellowed from the wreckage into the mid-morning. Only a blackened skeleton of the tool house and a charred pick-up truck remained amid the rubble. The nearby forestry learning center and the home of caretaker Norman Daroska, 43, both sustained minor smoke, fire and water damage. The projected total cost of damage will likely exceed $500,000, fire officials said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Portsmouth Fire Marshal Charlie Jones. Both the Portsmouth Fire Department and the state fire marshalís office are conducting the investigation. At 5:27 a.m., the Portsmouth fire department received an emergency 911 call from the caretaker reporting a fire in progress at 45 Elwyn Road. Upon the arrival of Ladder 2, firefighters observed heavy fire on the second floor and the rear of the building, according to Deputy Fire Chief Steven Achilles. "The fire rapidly progressed to fully involve the second story," Achilles said. The flames traveled into the roof and engulfed the first floor. "The fire began to impinge on the learning center and the caretakers house," Achilles said. "All initial companies were engaged in protecting the exposures." The flames collapsed the roof and devoured the interior. "Because of the extensive damage to the exterior of the building it will take some time for us to investigate the cause of the fire," Achilles said. Firefighters encountered a series of challenges in their struggle to douse the blaze. The volume and progression of the fire, the close proximity of adjacent buildings, coupled with bitter cold temperatures, a frozen fire hydrant and limited manpower on the initial attack, created a daunting task. Firefighters engineered a front and rear-ladder attack on the barn, knocking down the blaze in just under an hour. The Portsmouth Fire Department sounded a second alarm for additional resources and a third for potential fire spread. Firefighters from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Pease, Newington, Greenland, Rye, North Hampton, Exeter and Dover responded to the call for mutual aid. The blaze was called under control at 7 a.m. "Luckily, we had 14 people engaged in exposure control, which saved the caretakers home and the learning center," Achilles said. "It would have been much different if we didnít have that many people around." Achilles commended the duty shift for limiting the fire damage to the building of origin. "There was a substantial potential for losing the learning center, which was inches away, and the caretakers home, which was less than 20 feet away," he said. The Urban Forestry Center, a unique educational resource for New Hampshire residents, is located on the outskirts of Portsmouth on a quiet road. A.J. Dupere, community forester, said the fire department did a great job. "The next step is to deal with today," Dupere said. "The meeting facility will be closed this week." Dupere said the learning center will reopen after the minor water and fire damage is repaired. Established in 1976, the Urban Forestry Center was given to the people of New Hampshire through a bequest by John Elwyn Stone, a direct descendant of John Langdon, the first governor of the state. The 180-acre parcel of field, forest, salt marsh and several buildings is managed by the Division of Forests and Lands of the Department of Resources and Economic Development. The center receives annual income from a trust fund. The center is used as a tree farm, a bird and wildlife sanctuary, a garden demonstration site and as a learning center, offering such topics as forest management, ecology, tree and plant identification and wildlife stewardship.