Amherst weekend fires ruled accidental

  • Only a small portion of a barn, workshop and apartment at Muddy Brook Farm in South Amherst remained following an early morning fire on Sunday, Nov. 3.  STAFF PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2019 2:55:05 PM
Modified: 11/7/2019 2:54:54 PM

AMHERST — A Sunday morning barn fire that destroyed a family’s apartment and killed three horses at the Muddy Brook Farm has been ruled accidental, according to Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson.

Nelson said Thursday that the investigation was jointly completed by an Amherst Fire Department investigator and the state fire marshal’s office.

“They narrowed it down to either a heating system malfunction or spontaneous combustion of rags used for cleaning,” Nelson said.

Because the building was leveled, Nelson said investigators could only pinpoint the origin of the fire to near the furnace, where they were told that rags used for cleaning had been stored. Nelson said rags soaked with cleaning products have been known to catch fire if stored indoors. The building was home to the Rivera family. 

Like the barn fire, which also destroyed saddles, feed and other equipment related to equestrian, the fire Nov. 1 at Hampshire Athletic Club was also ruled accidental. Nelson said the fire started in or near a dryer that had issues previously.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the temporary closure of the fitness center from the fire damage is presenting a challenge to Amherst, especially since it is a popular place for water aerobics and swimming.

Amherst was already down a swimming pool when the University of Massachusetts closed the pool at the Totman building on campus. 

In the interim, Bockelman said LSSE Director Barbara Bilz is working to increase the lap times and open swims at the Amherst Regional Middle School pool.

Meantime, several online fundraisers have been created to help those who stored saddles and tack inside the destroyed barn, as well as to aid the Riveras and their two children and two small dogs. The Riveras lost their home and most of their belongings in the fire.

One effort ongoing is at the Mill District in North Amherst, where Jennifer Gannett, director of community development for W.D. Cowls Inc., said a drop-off location for items has been set up.

Gannett said the Riveras have been staying at a hotel in Hadley since the fire, but will be moving into a new apartment on Tuesday and will need furnishings, including at least three beds, both mattresses and frames, one of which should be king size.

Tables, chairs, dishes, utensils, pots, and pans also can be donated, Gannett said, but no more clothes.

Gannett said people can call her at 413-374-9497 to learn more about what is needed and how to get it to the family.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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