Ashfield woman struggles in wake of fire that destroyed her home

  • A Nov. 8 house fire in Ashfield caused extensive damage to Joan Arsenault’s home and required assistance of several fire departments. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2019 10:56:54 PM

ASHFIELD — For Joan Arsenault, the life-changing fire that burned her home, barn and shed on Nov. 8 hasn’t even begun to set in yet.

“Everything is day by day,” Arsenault said. “I don’t know when it would sink in. It’s like the death of my spouse. That took a long time to sink in.”

Arsenault’s husband, Joel, died three years ago.

“He was a poet and a lot of his poetry that’s irreplaceable was in that fire,” she said.

All three structures that burned at 314 Norton Hill Road were connected due to the old Cape style of construction, she said.

Ashfield Fire Chief Del Haskins said the fire was caused when coals from a woodstove were placed into a cardboard box and moved to the shed, where the coals proceeded to ignite it. The fire then moved to the barn and house, he said.

However, Arsenault, who has had a woodstove for years, said that on the night of Nov. 8, she lit the stove for the first time since last winter. When it came time to remove the hot ashes, Arsenault went to put them in an ash can, which contained cold ashes from last year, she said. To prevent overflow, she poured the hot ashes into a trash can lid, then poured the cold ashes into a cardboard box. Lastly, she said, she poured the hot ashes into the ash can, which she placed far away from the house, she said.

“I was trying to be careful. I am one of the most cautious people that there is,” Arsenault said, adding that she believed at the time that she had put only cold, year-old ashes into the cardboard box.

“Or else I never, ever would have done that,” Arsenault said.

Arsenault’s home was not insured at the time of the fire, not because she hadn’t tried to get insurance, she said.

“If anything comes out of this, it can impress upon people that they need insurance,” she said.

“We had homeowner’s (insurance) since we bought the house in the ’80s. For a million years, we paid the policy in full and on time,” Arsenault said.

Eight years ago, their insurance was canceled after a home inspection required them to make repairs, including repaint the house, repair a few windows, and add steps and a railing to their back porch, she said.

Since then, Arsenault has worked steadily to make the repairs but ran into roadblocks, including contractors telling her their schedules were full, she said.

“I was always one to feel uneasy” without insurance, Arsenault said. “It really bothered me. Every day, I thought about how we didn’t have insurance. I was still thinking maybe we could get it.”

Currently, she is staying with a friend in Colrain.

Arsenault corrected the Greenfield Recorder’s previous reporting by saying that her dog was with her at the time of the fire, but that her cat had died in January. She disputes the reported time of the fire and added she wants to see the official fire report.

Fundraising efforts emerge

The First Congregational Church in Ashfield has started a fund to support Arsenault.

“We are developing ways to respond to Joan’s losses,” David Jones, minister at First Congregational, said in a press release. “She and her late husband, Joel, are well-known members of the community and beloved members of our congregation. Setting up a fund is the first step of many to help her recover from this tragedy.”

Arsenault said that previously, she would have had mixed feelings about a fundraiser for someone who didn’t have insurance. Now she’s facing larger questions.

“The larger picture is, where would I ever be? When you live in a house forever ...” Arsenault began.

To donate to the fund, make checks payable to Ashfield Congregational Church, and write “For Joan Arsenault” on the memo line. Mail them to P.O. Box 519, Ashfield, MA 01330.

Maureen O’Reilly can be reached at or at 413-772-0261, ext. 280.

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