Fire which started on porch of house in Sunderland extinguished in 10 minutes

Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2014

SUNDERLAND — Michael and Carol Ahearn were sitting on the couch and recliner in their living room just after 9 p.m. Wednesday when her nose picked up an unusual smell.

“She said, ‘I think something is burning,’ and we had some Yankee Candles lit, so I blew them out,” said Michael. “I said, ‘Maybe we just don’t have the right candles.’”

About 30 minutes later, however, the house’s hard-wired smoke alarm system began to ring. A fire had broken out on the front porch of their 100-year-old house at 127 North Main St.

“It was ringing and telling us to evacuate the house,” Ahearn said. “I looked in my cellar and I could see a whole bunch of smoke, then when I opened the front door I could see the flames.”

Ahearn, who is the brother of Sunderland Fire Chief Robert Ahearn and spent 10 years as a volunteer firefighter himself, said he immediately began filling up his bath tub and using a plastic bucket to dump water on the blaze. Eventually, he stopped and the couple exited the house.

Soon after, firefighters from the Sunderland, Amherst, Hadley, South Deerfield, Leverett, Montague Center and Greenfield departments arrived and began to battle the blaze. The road was closed in both directions, and ambulances and fire trucks could be seen lining both sides of the street.

Robert Ahearn said he called the first alarm on the fire after the police officer who responded reported seeing smoke and flames. He said the fire was put out in about 10 minutes, after which firefighters checked the house to make sure fire had not spread anywhere else. The scene was cleared around 10:16 p.m.

“It’s better to have them there and not need them than to need them and not have them,” said Robert Ahearn, of the large response.

Thursday afternoon, Michael Ahearn said he felt fortunate that the fire was limited and that it was not windier outside, which would have helped fan the flames and put more of his house at risk. He also said he was glad it happened so early in the evening.

“You get a much quicker response out of volunteer fire departments at that time of night than you do at 1 or 2 in the morning,” he said.

Out front, charred planks and broken beams pulled off the porch by firefighters as they attempted to locate the source of the fire sat in three piles on the house’s lawn, and a length of yellow caution tape marked “Fire department, do not cross,” was strung from one end of the porch to the other.

One of the four posts that hold up the porch roof hung in midair, the waist-high wall that it formerly connected to having been removed by firefighters, and the smell of burned wood lingered in the air.

While Michael Ahearn said he is not sure what might have sparked the fire, he said he believes it could have been rodents chewing on electrical wires or someone walking past his house who threw a cigarette butt from the North Main Street sidewalk that is only a few feet away from the stoop.

According to Robert Ahearn, the state fire marshal was at the scene Thursday to investigate the fire and search for any kind of accelerant that may have been present, such as kerosene or gasoline, but did not find any and the cause has been declared undetermined.

Bending down to peer under the deck and check out the damage, Michael Ahearn wondered aloud how long the fire could have been smoldering without his knowledge.

“I’ve been living here 30 years, and I’ve never had any kind of fire problems,” he said, adding that he purchased the house in 1979 for $30,000. He said he expects his insurance company to cover most of the repairs.


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