Smith Voc fire sparked by hot riding mower

  • Northampton firefighters work a blaze in Building E4 at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School on Monday afternoon, May 23, 2022.

  • Firefighters from Northampton and Hadley work a blaze in Building E4 at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton on Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2022 6:11:57 PM
Modified: 5/24/2022 6:09:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Monday afternoon fire at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School “was accidental and most likely started when the exhaust of a riding lawnmower came into contact with combustible materials,” Northampton Fire Chief Jon Davine and State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

The fire caused an estimated $525,000 worth of damage to the forestry education building, according to Northampton Fire Rescue, but school officials are still assessing the loss and that figure could rise.

“Structurally, it’s pretty obvious we’ve lost most, if not all, of the building,” Smith Vocational Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoker said.

Most of Building E was gutted in the two-alarm fire that started shortly after 2 p.m.

School officials are conducting an inventory of everything that was lost in the fire, Linkenhoker said, such as tools and landscaping equipment, and trying to salvage anything that was not damaged. After that, he said, the plan is to demolish the building for safety reasons and to start imagining “the new building.”

“We lost a lot. There’s no way around that, but we were able to save some of the equipment,” including a truck and a utility trailer containing power tools, Linkenhoker said. Several tractors and a wide variety of tools were destroyed.

Assistant Fire Chief Andy Pelis said firefighters were already at Smith Voc when the fire started because they were making a delivery of fire extinguishers to the 80 Locust St. school.

“We had an engine on scene, coincidentally,” Pelis said.

No people or animals were injured and forestry classes were held in temporary locations on Tuesday. The fire was investigated by the Northampton fire and police departments and the State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit assigned to the state fire marshal’s office.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a garage bay; a riding lawnmower had been backed in against a wall where rags, tarps and other combustible items were stored.

Mutual aid crews arrived from Amherst, Easthampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Holyoke and South Deerfield to assist Northampton firefighters, while South County EMS, Whately and Williamsburg covered 911 calls in the city for the duration of the fire.

Pelis said the fire was knocked down in about an hour, but a small crew kept watch at the scene until 9 p.m.

Power equipment safety

“Now that we’re in yardwork season, this incident is a good reminder that lawnmowers and other gasoline-powered machinery can get hot enough to start a fire,” Davine, the fire chief, said in a statement. “The combination of high temperatures and flammable vapors make fire safety a priority when using lawnmowers, chainsaws, and power equipment.”

Also on Monday, an overheated lawnmower caused a major fire that burned down a house in Methuen, according to the fire marshal’s office. The Boston Globe reported that no one was injured.

In a social media statement on Monday night, Smith Vocational said it was “forever thankful” for the first responders and other emergency personnel.

“Your quick response, skilled training, and professionalism is unlike any others. Thank you for all you do,” the statement reads.

Double damage

The statement also credits students and staff for their “cooperation” in facing back-to-back crises. About 18 hours before the fire, high winds had blown off a section of the roof on Building D, forcing the school to relocate shops and classes to other spaces including the library and the cafeteria while emergency repairs were made.

“Not even the wind or fire can stop our school!” the statement reads.

Northampton Fire Rescue and school officials agree that the two crises were not related in any way.

Linkenhoker, the superintendent, said the Building D students were back in their original classrooms on Tuesday, which opened up the temporary shop and classroom space that they had been occupying and allowed the Building E students to use it.

Alumni and vocational school colleagues from around the state have called Linkenhoker in recent days, he said, to offer assistance. Officials are compiling a list of tools that need to be replaced, as well as companies that Smith Vocational patronizes, and they plan to ask the community for donations of equipment or gift cards.

“People are wonderful in the time of a crisis,” Linkenhoker said. “Our staff and students are some of the most resilient individuals I’ve ever met.”

During the fire, staff stayed longer than they had to in order to make sure all students were safe and accounted for, he said, and teachers volunteered their shops and classrooms for the displaced forestry students to use.

“It was just amazing to see,” Linkenhoker said. “I think that’s who we are at Smith Vocational. What can we do to help each other out?”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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