Mass. Firefighters Spot Smoke, Find Hotel Fire

June 27--HAVERHILL -- Firefighters said a fire that broke out at the Best Western Hotel on Lowell Avenue yesterday had similarities to the blaze that destroyed a Forest Acres apartment building last month.

But in this case, firefighters happened to be in the area when they saw smoke, and they immediately responded.

In both cases, the fires began on the exterior of the building, only yesterday's fire was stopped before it had a chance to spread.

Fire officials said early detection is often the key to preventing a small fire from turning into a big blaze.

Just before 11 a.m. yesterday, firefighters on Engine 1 were traveling on Lowell Avenue on a training exercise when they saw smoke rising into the sky. They were just seconds away from the Best Western and arrived at the fire much quicker than they would have been able to from the Water Street Fire Station.

"They pulled in and started to evacuate the building and attack the fire," said Deputy Chief Eric Tarpy. "Having Engine 1 in the area was huge as every second matters. And with an exterior fire, it doesn't always give you early detection."

Tarpy was referring to the nature of exterior fires and how they typically do not initially trigger interior smoke alarms.

"There was no question that it was a working fire when they saw smoke," Tarpy said about firefighters on Engine 1. "If they were at the station, it's about a three-minute response, which is a long time for a fire."

For firefighter Jim Lemieux, who was on Engine 1, yesterday's fire was likely the last he will have to fight flames. Lemieux is in his 27th year on the force and said he is retiring next week.

Lemieux said that when his crew arrived at the Best Western, he placed a ladder against the front of the building and began tearing off pieces of heavy exterior siding to get at flames inside a column that acted like a chimney, forcing smoke out of the eaves of a second-floor balcony.

"Rescue 1 and Ladder 1 arrived and began opening up the roof to ventilate it," Lemieux said. "It was a team effort by all the guys."

Lemieux likened the fire to the May 7 Forest Acres apartment fire. Fire officials said the cause of the large apartment building fire at 21-23 Forest Acres Drive in Bradford was the improper disposal of smoking materials. Officials said the fire started on the rear ground-level exterior of 21 Forest Acres Drive and traveled up the outside of the building. The blaze caused an estimated $670,000 in damage.

"This was a similar scenario to Bradford, but we were able to keep it in check," Lemieux said in reference to how quickly Engine 1 arrived at the Best Western.

Families and others who were staying at the Best Western told The Eagle-Tribune that although the fire was limited to one small area of the complex, they were all ordered to evacuate by staff members who came knocking on their doors.

Forty employees of Helfrich Bros. Boiler Works Inc. of Lawrence, many of whom were asleep, were ordered out of their rooms.

They said they have been working the night shift on a several-week-long maintenance project at the Covanta trash disposal plant in Haverhill. The workers said they expected to return to their rooms by early yesterday afternoon.

A large number of children and their parents waited in the parking lot across the street from the Best Western. They included families who were placed there under low-income assistance programs.

Deb Duxbury, disaster program manager for the local American Red Cross, was there with her team. They handed out bottles of water and sports drinks to firefighters, as well as food, snacks and drinks to families.

Thomas White, who was staying at the Best Western with his wife and their two children, said that when someone knocked on his door to alert him to the fire, he didn't think much of it at first, but then he saw smoke.

"Sometimes people burn their toast and the alarms go off," White said.

Copyright 2014 - The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.