On The Job - Massachusetts: 78 Departments Battle $26 Million Fire At Uxbridge Mill

Jay K. Bradish details a general-alarm fire that destroyed the historic Bernat Mill and required large-scale mutual aid.


On Saturday, July 21, 2007, a general-alarm fire destroyed the historic Bernat Mill in downtown Uxbridge. The old mill-type structure presented many challenges to the 400 firefighters from 78 departments that responded from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Originally known as The Capron Mill, started...


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At the request of Mullaly on the D side of the building, command requested the Northern Rhode Island Task Force at 7:45 A.M. Harrisville, RI, Engine 22 was already on scene and Attleboro responded with Engine 2; Cumberland Hill responded with Engine 42 and Woonsocket responded with a Foam Tender. The Northern Rhode Island Foam Task Force is a collaboration of communities in the Northern Rhode Island Fire League established to provide large amounts of foam concentrate and apparatus designed to deliver foam for incidents under the "Southern New England Fire Emergency Assistance Plan" developed by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs. The foam task force was special-called when command realized that there was unexpanded polystyrene foam inside one section of the building that was not involved. Commanders wanted to protect that fuel load from the fire. Foam units were deployed to the D side of the building and through the foam and master streams going through holes in the fire separation wall dividing that business from the main structure. Under the direction of the task force leader, Chief Mark St. Pierre of Harrisville, RI, Fire Department, foam was applied using handlines inside the Foam Concepts space and along the D-side fire wall separating Foam Concepts from the fire building from the apparatus-mounted turrets.

Command determined that more resources were needed. The Massachusetts Statewide Mobilization Plan was activated using six task forces, each consisting of at least six engines and two ladders from neighboring fire districts based on a plan developed by the Department of Fire Services and the Fire Chief's Association of Massachusetts. These task forces can be utilized once the District Mutual Aid Plan is exhausted. Consideration is given to the mutual aid plans at the local and district levels and typical response of a Task Force is a minimum of one hour. Task Force 14B was requested at 8 A.M. Engines from Natick, Ashland, Wayland, Sudbury, Hudson and Hopkinton and ladders from Sherborn, Framingham and Marlboro responded. Task Force 4B consisting of engines from Foxborough, Walpole, Norwood, Mansfield, Wrentham; ladders from Franklin and Milford; and command units from Northboro and Southboro was requested at 9:35 A.M. The task forces were assigned to water supply, master-stream deployment and fire suppression. Additionally, two ambulance task forces from the Department of Public Health, Office of Emergency Medical Services plan were used. Ambulance Task Force 7B, with ambulances from Oxford, Leicester, Spencer, Webster, Pathways and East Brookfield were under the command of Oxford Assistant Chief Sherry Bemis. Ambulance Task Force 7D under the command of Auburn Lieutenant Eric Otterson was comprised of ambulances from AMR, Am-B-Care and Eascare arrived at the staging area later in the incident.

Under Control

The fire was declared under control and confined to the main section of the structure at 3:30 P.M. by Ostroskey. Subsequently heavy equipment was brought in to eliminate the threat of collapse on the A/B corner and to provide better access to difficult areas on the C side.

To provide apparatus and manpower for the suppression operations, four additional state task forces were used. Task Force 14A was requested at 3:43 P.M. Engines from Acton, Carlisle, Lincoln, Maynard, Stow and Sudbury responded along with ladders from Concord and Boxborough. Task Force 8D was requested at 7:18 P.M. for relief beginning at midnight. Engines from Barre, Hardwick, Hubbardston, New Braintree, Oakham; an engine and ladder from Westminster and a ladder from Rutland responded. Task Force 3A was requested for relief beginning at 7 A.M. on July 22. Seekonk, Rehoboth and Taunton responded with engines; North Attleboro and Norton responded with an engine and ladder; and Millville and Grafton responded with ladders. District 7 Central Strike Team was reactivated and arrived at 3 P.M. on July 22. District 7 West 2 Strike Team was again requested and arrived at 11 P.M. After this shift, Uxbridge and surrounding mutual aid companies provided fire watch and suppression activities until Tuesday, July 31.

Over 400 firefighters operated at the incident. Mutual aid units were used throughout Saturday and Sunday with Uxbridge assuming most of the operation by late Monday afternoon. Additional local mutual aid units were used during the fire watch throughout the week. The last Uxbridge unit was released on Tuesday, July 31, at 6 P.M. One recall to the scene on Aug. 6, was required due to a pile of debris burning after demolition crews exposed a hot spot. Based on preliminary reports, damage was estimated at $26 million.

An investigation was led by the Massachusetts State Police Fire Investigative Unit with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Uxbridge Fire and Uxbridge Police Departments assisting. The findings of the investigation were announced on Nov. 20. It was determined that the most probable cause of the fire was welding being performed in an environment that did not meet the safety requirements of the building and fire codes. It was found that part of the sprinkler system in the area of origin had been padlocked in the closed position with notifying the fire department. This let the fire quickly overwhelm the sprinkler system. Welding had taken place in the area earlier in the day of the fire, and one employee reported smelling smoke in the hallway near East Coast Machine, but could not locate any source.