Area firefighters at the scene of a structure fire on The Island in Bellows Falls, Tuesday afternoon. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Area firefighters at the scene of a structure fire on The Island in Bellows Falls, Tuesday afternoon. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Wednesday January 2, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- As he worked at the Island Street NAPA Auto Parts store just before noon on Wednesday, Andy Castine heard a boom from the building next door.

"It might have been a tire exploding," Castine said. "A guy came up, ran in the door and said, 'Call the fire department.'"

That was the start of a two-alarm fire that ripped through an Island Street building and caused an estimated $250,000 in damage. The blaze, which still was under investigation late Wednesday, displaced businesses and one resident while also sending two firefighters to the hospital.

"It was a difficult fire," said William Weston, Bellows Falls Fire Department chief.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire in a building on Island Street in Bellows Falls behind the NAPA Auto Parts store. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire in a building on Island Street in Bellows Falls behind the NAPA Auto Parts store. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)

The building sits near the auto-parts store and The Island Oh Zone thrift shop, though neither of those structures were damaged.

Officials said the building, at 10 Island St., housed an auto-repair business, a wood-working shop and an apartment. The owner was identified as Paul Anderson.

Everyone in the building escaped the fire safely. Doug Bishop, a spokesman for the Vermont and the New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross, confirmed that the organization was assisting one resident from the apartment.

Witnesses at the scene said one portion of the building housed multiple, expensive motorcycles.

Weston said the fire clearly started in the auto shop, which was the most heavily damaged area. Burnt vehicles sat under the shop's collapsed roof, and the cab of a white pickup truck parked outside was charred.

There were reports that gasoline ignited the blaze. But Weston could say only that there was an ongoing investigation and that the incident was "not considered suspicious at this time."

A press release issued by the department said two firefighters -- whose names were not released -- suffered minor injuries.

The fire drew a widespread emergency response from mutual-aid communities including Westminster, Saxtons River, Rockingham and Springfield in Vermont and Walpole, North Walpole and Charlestown in New Hampshire.

Golden Cross Ambulance also responded.

Ron Lake, Bellows Falls police chief, was among the first on the scene. He was nearby when he spotted smoke rising from Island Street.

"I arrived here and there was still just smoke rolling out," Lake said at the scene. "But it turned into a fire really quick."

When Castine left the NAPA store, two garage doors on the next-door building already were burning. He and others tried to move vehicles out of the way for firefighters.

"We actually were told to stay out of our building for a while," Castine said.

Weston said there was "a lot of fire when we got here." The flames then worked their way along the building's roof, causing trouble for firefighters.

"It was definitely a stubborn fire," Weston said. "It wasn't easily accessible."

The incident diverted some traffic from the village; officials were sending northbound Westminster Street traffic onto Church Street. A short distance away on Bridge Street, the Bellows Falls post office was shuttered early in the afternoon. A sign on the door notified patrons that, "due to smoke, we are closed until 3:30 p.m."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.

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This video from the fire was posted on YouTube earlier: