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Drone boosts Northampton firefighters’ aerial attack

  • Graves Ave. fire in Northampton on Tuesday morning.

  • Ed Wingfield, of National Grid, reconnects the power to 46 Graves Ave. which caught on fire due to the improper disposal of smoking materials. Caitlin Ashworth—

  • Ed Wingfield, of National Grid, reconnects the power to 46 Graves Ave. in Northampton on Wednesday. The condominium building was heavily damaged by fire Tuesday caused by the improper disposal of smoking materials. GAZETTE STAFF/Caitlin Ashworth

  • Ed Wingfield, of National Grid, reconnects the power to 46 Graves Ave. which caught on fire due to the improper disposal of smoking materials. Caitlin Ashworth—

  • Ed Wingfield, of National Grid, reconnects the power to 46 Graves Ave. which caught on fire due to the improper disposal of smoking materials. Caitlin Ashworth—



Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 19, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — As flames billowed from a third-floor porch and firefighters from across the region descended on Graves Street on Tuesday morning, up in the air a drone was giving firefighters a bird’s-eye view of the situation.

For the second time, Northampton Police launched their drone — the DJI Phantom IV — giving firefighters a view of the roof while their feet remained planted on the ground. Police had previously used the drone in an attempt to find deer that had gotten out of their enclosure at Look Park earlier this month.

“It’s safer — we don’t have to put firefighters up there and rely on them to tell us what is going on up there,” Northampton Assistant Fire Chief Jon Davine said Wednesday. “That drone was fantastic.”

Crews from Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, South Deerfield, Hadley, Williamsburg and Westover Air Reserve Base responded to the three-alarm fire at 46 Graves Ave., which was reported at 8:41 a.m., officials said. About 30 to 40 firefighters were at the scene.

In addition to firefighters, Northampton police were also on scene including Sgt. Patrick Moody, one of the department’s two officers certified to be remote pilots.

Looking at the screen of a tablet, Davine said he was able to get a close-up view of the roof.

“It’s a large house. That drone can kind of maneuver, get near the soffits, get you a good view of where that fire is spreading,” he said, referring to the area under the eaves. “As far as safety, too, we don’t have to put firefighters up there and risk getting injured if we can see through the drone.”

This is the first time in Davine’s experience that a drone has been used to help in firefighting efforts.

“It was interesting. I think it was the first myself and (Deputy Fire Chief Stephen) Vanasse fought a fire and had that tactical advantage,” Davine said. “Looking at it, we know where it is and we know where to put our people.”

In addition to helping direct the fire crews’ attention, Davine said it could also assist in fire investigations.

He called the drone “a huge asset” for the department, although he was unsure if the Fire Department would purchase its own.

Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Vanasse said the fire began on the balcony area of the building’s third floor and that the cause was the improper disposal of smoking materials.

That term, Vanasse said, is used to refer to any type of smoking, but most likely a cigarette or cigar. Vanasse said he was unsure what exactly was left on the balcony, and referred that question to the Northampton Police Department.

A call to Detective Michael Briggs was not immediately returned.

‘Trouble man’

A day after the flames disrupted the lives of six individuals, blue tarp covered the building’s roof, white columns were still black with soot and a sign for Quality Cleaning & Restoration was placed in the window of the now-vacant first-floor apartment.

Ed Wingfield, of National Grid, was up in a cherry picker, connecting the electrical line back to the home. He said he’s the company’s “trouble man.”

“I go wherever there’s trouble,” he said, such as downed power lines.

The victims of the fire could not be reached Wednesday, but all were offered assistance by the American Red Cross.

The nonprofit provides financial assistance as well as help from a case worker who follows up with victims about once a week until the case is closed after five weeks.

Red Cross spokesman Jeff Hall said on average a person receives about $550, but it can fluctuate depending on the damage to the home.

Hall said one of the most common concerns is making sure people contact their utility and cable services.

For victims in need of emotional support, the Red Cross connects them with mental health providers, many of whom volunteer their services to fire victims.

“It’s a very stressful time,” Hall said. “A home fire is a disaster … A person might lose everything they own.”