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

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 by John Capron, the facility was famous for the military uniforms that were made there during the Civil War, World War I (khaki overcoats) and World War II (U.S. Army uniforms). The first U.S. Air Force uniforms, made in what became known as "Uxbridge Blue," were made in the mill. It later became the Bernat Mill and was known for yarns in the later 20th century, and at one time was the third-largest yarn factory in the country.

During the 1990s, the mill was converted to a multi-use facility. At the time of the fire, it was home to 65 small businesses, retail shops and manufacturing companies, all of which were destroyed. The oldest part of the mill, the original Capron Mill, made of wood, was largely saved from the fire by the efforts of firefighters.

The original structure was erected in 1820 with major additions in 1912, 1923, 1929, 1946, 1950 and 1953. The original structure was unprotected steel construction with exterior wood cladding. Most of the major additions were unprotected steel construction with brick exterior walls. One section was steel frame with metal sheathing. The majority of the roof was rubber membrane over plank roofing with insulation and covered with a half-inch of ballast stone.

The structure could be broken down into four distinct sections with a total floor area of 350,000 square feet: the main building was three stories high, with each floor measuring 100,000 square feet; an attached storage area and loading dock on the B/C corner comprised approximately 20,000 square feet; a small manufacturing area on the C/D corner contained 20,000 square feet; and the original three-story wooden structure contained 10,000 square feet. The entire premise was protected by a full sprinkler system supplied by the municipal water system. It was connected to the municipal alarm system using a master box triggered by flow switches on each sprinkler system. There were no other detection devices in the building. There were no public life safety issues as the building was closed and unoccupied at the time of the fire.

The Uxbridge Fire Department received Master Box 2111 at 4:15 A.M. from the Bernat Mill at 19 Depot St. The first response was two on-duty personnel from Station 1 with Engine 1, a 1,250-gpm pumper. Twenty-five off-duty and on-call personnel immediately responded from home on the first alarm. Engine 2, Engine 3, Engine 5, Ladder 1 and Rescue 1 responded from Uxbridge's three stations on the first alarm with off-duty firefighters.

Captain Melissa Blodgett and Firefighter Roger Lavallee from Engine 1 went to the enunciator panel at the main entrance of the building on side A. Based on the zone displayed, they relocated Engine 1 into the courtyard on the D side to investigate the indicated area. Blodgett reported light smoke conditions from the rear of the building near the C/D corner of the main structure. Proceeding into the main structure through a closed fire wall door, they encountered heavy smoke conditions on the first floor of the main building.

The first fire the crew located was on the first floor between the B and D sides of the main structure, closer to the A side than the C side. Second-due Engine 5 was positioned at the A/B corner of the main structure and personnel went to Engine 1 to assist the crew. Firefighters advanced a 150-foot 1¾-inch line from Engine 1. Engine 2 took a position on Mendon Street near the gate entrance to the courtyard on the D side of the building. This engine's crew entered the building to assist the crews from Engines 1 and 5 in locating the fire and initiating fire attack. A 200 foot, 2½-inch line was taken into the building as directed by Engine 1's original entry crew. Engine 3 laid a 200-foot, four-inch supply line from a hydrant on Depot Street to a position on the B side of the building near Engine 5.

Ladder 1 was positioned on the A side of the building and raised its ladder to the roof of the structure. The initial report from the roof crew was that smoke was showing from numerous vents and that fire could be seen at the bottom of a four-inch vent pipe. Engine 3 was relocated to the loading dock area located at the A/B corner of the main structure.

Captain Thomas Dion from Engine 5 requested a second alarm at 4:23 A.M. Responding on this alarm were Northbridge Engine 3, Mendon Engine 1 and Heavy Rescue 1; Millville Ladder 1; a communications unit from Sutton; and North Smithfield, RI, Engine/Tanker 1. Uxbridge Deputy Chief Bill Kessler arrived at 4:24 and assumed command. Northbridge Engine 3 laid a 300-foot, four-inch supply line from a hydrant on Mendon Street to Uxbridge Engine 1. The crew from Northbridge Engine 3 was assigned to assist with the interior attack. Mendon Engine 1 was assigned to the A side, main entrance and connected a 25-foot, four-inch supply line to a hydrant on Depot Street in front of the building. This crew stretched a 150-foot, 2½-inch line through the front door to the second floor, where it encountered untenable conditions due to high heat and moderate smoke.

Millville Ladder 1 was assigned to the D side courtyard and raised its aerial to the third floor. This crew advanced a 200-foot, 2½-inch line to the third floor from Uxbridge Engine 1. Heavy smoke was encountered upon entering the main section of the building near the A/B corner. Captain Josh Poznanski and the Millville ladder crew used a thermal imaging camera to locate heavy fire on the third floor and placed the handline into operation.

Uxbridge Fire Chief Peter Ostroskey arrived on scene at 4:37 and took command of operations. A command post was initially established on Depot Street at the A/B corner of the main structure. Kessler was assigned to coordinate operations on the B side of the building with Uxbridge Engine 3 and Millville Fire Chief John Mullaly was assigned D-side operations. Ostroskey special-called the third-alarm aerial ladder from Northbridge to the scene. Northbridge Ladder 1 was positioned on the B side and firefighters advanced a 200-foot, 2½-inch line through an oversized window on the third floor. The Northbridge ladder crew encountered moderate smoke while checking for fire along the B-side wall while advancing toward side C. Not finding any fire, the crew returned to the entry window and proceeded along the A-side wall toward the Millville ladder crew until being driven out by heavy, acrid smoke. No fire and minimal heat were encountered by the crew.

Ostroskey requested a third alarm at 5:02 A.M. At this time, the command post was moved to a parking area on Mendon Street opposite Depot Street facing the A/D corner of the building. Mendon Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Poirier was assigned as the staging officer at the command post to coordinate the incoming companies on the third alarm. Sutton Engine 1 and Douglas Engine 1 responded on the third alarm. The crew from Douglas Engine 1 assisted Mendon Engine 1's crew on the second floor. Ostroskey requested a fourth alarm at 05:13. Blackstone Engine 55 and Ladder 51; Upton Engine 1, Hopedale Engine 2 and Harrisville, RI, Engine 22 responded on this alarm. Ostroskey requested a fifth alarm at 5:32 A.M. Douglas Ladder 1, Millbury Engine 1; Oakland-Mapleville, RI, Engine 11; Pascoag, RI, Engine 44; and Nasonville, RI, Engine 32 responded. Initial firefighter rehab was done by ambulance crews from Uxbridge, Mendon, Northbridge and a paramedic unit from Milford Hospital. Ostroskey ordered interior companies out of the building, beginning with Engine 3 at 5:35, after receiving a report of a structural collapse from Kessler operating inside the ground floor on the B side of the main structure.

Mutual Aid

Fire District 7 mutual aid response is initiated after the local mutual aid resources (running cards) are exhausted. "Strike teams" consisting of four engines and two ladders are made up of units from other fire departments within the district. Units from two of the strike teams were already included in the five-alarm mutual aid response, leaving only three additional strike teams to be requested. Apparatus and manpower from the strike teams were used for drafting operations, fire suppression and relief crews. The first Fire District 7 Strike Team (Central) was requested at 5:39 A.M. Leicester, Auburn, and Paxton responded with engines; Worcester sent an engine, a tower and a ladder; and Oxford responded with a tower ladder, an engine and a communications unit. A special request was made to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services to send an incident support unit and a rehab unit.

Ostroskey ordered the evacuation of the building at 5:49 A.M. and the initiation of defensive operations. The crew from Uxbridge Ladder 1 made a large trench cut near the A/B corner of the building above the area in which the crew from Northbridge Ladder 1 had been operating. The crew then advanced a 2½-inch line to the roof and attacked the fire breaking out around a large air handling structure near the A/B corner of the building. Ladder pipes were placed into service beginning at 5:51 A.M. Uxbridge Ladder 1 and Northbridge Ladder 1 were repositioned to allow for a collapse zone on the A/B corner. Millville Ladder 1 moved its aerial from the roof line on the D side and went to ladder-pipe operation.

Kessler initiated efforts on the B side of the building to establish drafting sites along the Mumford River. Upton Fire Chief Michael Bradford assumed responsibility for firefighting operations at the A/B corner of the building. Douglas Ladder 1 was set up on the B/C corner for master stream operation. Blackstone Ladder 1 was positioned near the A/D corner and began ladder pipe operations. Worcester Ladder 5 joined Douglas Ladder 1 on the B/C corner and Worcester Tower 1 was positioned between the Blackstone and Northbridge aerials on the A side. Webster Tower 1 was positioned on the D side with the Millville Ladder. Portable monitors were placed on the A side on top of the wall in the Prospect Hill Cemetery along Depot Street. Two additional portable monitors were deployed to the C/D corner with one inside on the second floor with a stream directed down a conveyor as the second played in the windows on the D side nearest the C wall. Mullaly deployed two deck guns on the interior of the occupancy attached to the D side of the main building to prevent extension into that section of the building. The second District 7 Strike Team (West 2) was requested at 6:15 A.M. Charlton, Dudley and Southbridge responded with engines; Sturbridge sent an engine and a heavy rescue; Webster sent an engine, a tower ladder and a heavy rescue, Spencer sent a communications unit and Worcester sent a ladder. The third District 7 Strike Team (West 1) was requested at 7 A.M. North Brookfield, Brookfield, West Brookfield and Warren sent engines, Spencer sent an engine and a ladder, and East Brookfield sent an ambulance.

Water Supply

Hydrants on Depot Street in front of the fire building and adjoining Mendon Street were originally tapped for water supply. As companies set up to protect the exposures along South Main Street and later to begin an attack from the C side of the building, hydrants on South Main Street were used. The combination of streams used by firefighters and the sprinkler system in the fire building eventually depleted the municipal water supply. Extensive drafting was needed to replace it Access at three points along the Mumford River was used. At one point, 14 engines were at draft, including the Oakland-Mapleville, RI, engine company that pumped from the Blackstone River, nearly a mile east of the incident.

At 7 A.M., Bradford saw a large amount of combustible liquid burning on top of the runoff coming from the building. Within two minutes, the fuel fire ignited in the parking lot with flames reaching the height of the building on side B. This exterior fire was knocked down by repositioning master streams that were operating on the building. Booms were deployed in the Mumford River to contain any unburned liquid from reaching the pumpers that were drafting and to limit any environmental impact. Uxbridge Firefighter Kevin Feen responded to the scene with the Uxbridge hazmat trailer and helped Kessler place the booms.

At 7:44 A.M., Mullaly reported that the fire was advancing toward the section of the building that contained the Foam Concepts Company on the D side of the building. Foam Concepts had an inventory of unexpanded polystyrene foam pellets ready for processing in their portion of the building. Mullaly deployed two portable monitors and a 2½-inch line inside the Foam Concepts area to operate through the openings in the fire wall to keep the fire from spreading through it.

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.

The main section of the building was destroyed and major smoke and water damage was sustained by the three adjoining sections. No contents were salvageable in the main building, and much of the remaining structure was damaged. Some manufacturing equipment was preserved and subsequently relocated. Nine firefighters were transported to Milford Regional Hospital from the scene. Most were suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration; two suffered from sprains or strains. All were treated and released from the hospital and most returned to the fire scene. No civilian injuries were reported. Weather conditions throughout the incident were clear and seasonably mild with moderate temperatures and low humidity.

Lessons Learned

  • Problems -- The biggest problem experienced was the water supply from the municipal water system. Firefighters were fortunate that there was an adequate supply in the nearby rivers, but there was a delay in gaining access to it while trees were cut from the river banks and engine companies deployed large-diameter hoselines. The multi-use occupancy presented challenges as the interior layout had been changed several times in recent years. Poor visibility from the earliest entry to the building made firefighting operations difficult. No formal pre-plan was in place at the time of the fire.
  • Successes -- Through the excellent work of interior crews providing accurate information in addition to making a strong interior attack, all personnel were removed from the structure without sustaining major injuries. Deployment of hose streams and appliances prevented extension of the fire into adjoining sections, one of which had a significant fire load of unexpanded polystyrene foam pellets. The atmospheric conditions allowed the smoke to move out of the area quickly. The drafting operations were executed perfectly in spite of some high lifts and difficult access conditions supplying the bulk of the water used in the incident. The mutual aid systems used were flawless and the resources of the local departments, Massachusetts Fire District 7, the Executive Office of Public Safety, the Massachusetts and Rhode Island State Mobilization Plans, the support of the Department of Fire Services, State Police, Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Protection and other state and federal agencies were key to the success of this event. The fire department has adequately prepared and trained for structural fires, but not for one of this magnitude. Firefighters are increasing their knowledge of the multi-use buildings in the community, including better monitoring of the activities within them.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.