'A pair of shorts, T-shirt, sneakers' and not much else left: Lightning, fire destroys restaurateur Claudio Guerra’s home

Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2014
WILLIAMSBURG — “I literally have a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers to my name,” Claudio Guerra said Thursday morning after his house was destroyed by a fire officials say was caused by a lightning strike Wednesday night.Guerra, owner of Spoleto, Pizzeria Paradiso and Mama Iguana’s restaurants, was standing across the street from the scene of the early morning fire that reduced his 6,500-square-foot home to rubble.Guerra and firefighters suspect a lightning strike during Wednesday’s thunderstorms may have started the blaze at 61 North Farms Road, Williamsburg. Reports that Guerra's address is 675 North Farms Road, Northampton, refer to the home's mailbox at the end of a half-mile driveway. Guerra's home sits on the Northampton-Williamsburg line.Nobody was home when the fire broke out, and nobody was injured battling the blaze.Inside the home were “a lifetime of memories, and things that you collect, and important and valuable things,” Guerra said, but he tried to put the loss in perspective.“I have to say that I’m from New York and the Twin Towers meant a lot to me. This was nothing,” said Guerra, fighting back tears as he spoke. “It’s just a house.”Guerra said he, his wife, Maria, and their three children, ages 7, 4, and 2, were out of state visiting Guerra’s father last night.The only occupants of the house were a house sitter and the family dog, Peaches.Guerra said he received a phone call from the house sitter about 9:30 p.m. and was told lightning had struck close to the house.Guerra said the house sitter said she smelled sulfur, and he presumed it was from the bolt.He asked the house sitter to check the house out, put Peaches in the garage, and said she could then go home if she wanted to.“Thank God she did that,” Guerra said. “Everybody’s safe.”Peaches was in the garage with the door open when the fire broke out and survived unscathed.There are signs on the property indicating an “invisible fence” was in use.Alarm failureGuerra said he built the home in stages over the course of a few years.“It was a beautiful home,” he said.Guerra said he didn’t have a damage estimate, but said he believes it is lower than the $2 million estimate provided Thursday morning by Northampton Fire Chief Brian Duggan.Guerra said the house had an alarm and security system and isn’t sure why it apparently failed in this case.“We have a great alarm system,” he said. “I’m a chef and I like cooking smoky things and I have to be careful because my fire alarm goes off.”“I don’t understand why that didn’t happen. I’m guessing maybe the lightning took out the phone system or something, I have no idea,” said Guerra.Northampton Fire Chief Brian Duggan said the 911 call came in about 2:49 a.m. from a neighbor’s house. He said about 75 firefighters from 12 area towns responded to the four-alarm fire.Guerra said he received a phone call from firefighters at about 4 a.m. informing him his property was ablaze.By Thursday afternoon, little was left of the home except smoldering piles of charred wood and debris. The only thing standing was the home’s fireplace and chimney.At 1:30 p.m., Amherst firefighters were still dousing piles of burnt, smoldering debris with firehoses to finally extinguish lingering hot spots.As firefighters discovered anything that might be valuable, they carefully removed it from the wreckage and placed it in a small pile near the foundation.One of the few items that was recovered was a framed pair of photos and a certificate of completion Guerra’s wife received for finishing the 2004 New York City Marathon.The smell of burnt wood still hung in the air as crews using heavy equipment set about the task of collecting the bits and pieces of debris and putting them into large piles.Volunteers sand staff with the American Red Cross were also on scene providing water, coffee and food to firefighters. Those volunteers remained at the fire scene into the afternoon providing meals with its mobile kitchen truck.Water shortageDepartments from Amherst, Westhampton, Huntington, Cummington, Whately, Hadley, Hatfield, Easthampton, Chesterfield, Conway and Williamsburg assisted Northampton in extinguishing the fire.Duggan said the extra response was needed not so much for the size of the fire itself — although that was significant — but to get water to it. He said the closest hydrant — about a quarter-mile down the hill from Guerra’s driveway — couldn’t provide enough volume to help extinguish the flames.Tanker trucks from area fire departments were needed to help provide water, and temporary pools were constructed to draw stored water from.Complicating matters more, Duggan said, is that Guerra’s home is set back at the end of an approximately three-quarter-mile private driveway that called for firefighters to connect multiple lengths of hose to reach.“Our people did a great job,” Duggan said.He noted that there is a significant risk to homeowners who live outside of the city’s water district where hydrants or other sources of water aren’t as prevalent when firefighting water is needed.In a statement, Duggan said a residential sprinkler system could have helped save the home.By telephone Thursday afternoon, Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Timothy McQueston said residential sprinkler systems are known to greatly reduce the spread of fire, giving firefighters more time to intervene.In other areas of the country, he said, residential sprinklers are becoming the norm, but they’ve been slower to be adopted locally.In some areas, however, where new developments are served by water systems with low pressure or outside of water districts altogether, they are required, he said.Regardless of where homes are located, McQueston said, the fire department encourages the installation and use of sprinklers.“Anything people can do in regard to fire safety makes our lives easier and their lives safer,” he said. Smelled smokeThe neighbor who called in the fire, Lizzy Majka, was awakened about 2:30 a.m. by the smell of smoke, her husband, Ken, said.He said she checked around the house, looking for the source of the smell and couldn’t find it until she looked out the front window and saw what looked like flames through the woods.Ken Majka said he ran outside to confirm her suspicions and saw Guerra’s house about 150 yards away, already about a quarter of the way consumed by flames.When he went back to his home, his wife was already calling 911, he said.Athleen Zimmerman who lives about a quarter-mile down the hill from Guerra, said she woke up about 6 a.m. and saw police and fire trucks on the street.She said her yard and property were covered with soot and embers from the fire, some of them as large as a fist.Elizabeth Denny, who lives across the street from Guerra, said she heard the lightning strike Wednesday night and saw the flames from her home about 3 a.m.She said she was awakened by the flashing lights from emergency vehicles, but thought at first it was more lightning until she realized the flashes were coming at regular intervals.Denny said the neighborhood is extremely quiet.“Nothing happens like that here,” she said.Guerra said he’s not sure where he and his family go from here. “I have no idea — have to call my insurance company and try to find someplace for the wife and the kids,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to deal with that, too — all their stuff is gone.”Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.