Island firefighters and emergency personnel this past week responded to no fewer than three fully involved house fires in three different towns.
Although fire officials say there are no signs of foul play in any of the fires, there was consensus that three major structure fires in one week is unusually high for the second week of March on the Vineyard, indeed for any week.
“I can say it is one big coincidence to have three fires in one week, but all indications are it’s just that, a coincidence,” Tisbury fire chief John Schilling said.
The first fire was first reported Thursday, March 6, at 5:47 p.m. when 17-year-old Rafaela Oliveira called 911 to report a fire in the rear bedroom of her family’s home at 195 Spring street in Vineyard Haven. When firefighters arrived they found flames shooting out of an L-shaped addition in back of the single-story home where the bedroom was located.
Chief Schilling said some 50 firefighters responded to the scene including personnel from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. Next-door neighbor Eric Medeiros, a volunteer firefighter, was one of the first to arrive and immediately started to run water over a 120-pound propane tank adjacent to the house.
Firefighters performed a “quick knockdown” of the flames to make sure the flames did not reach the main part of the house. Using a large gas-powered fan, firefighters used a technique called positive pressure ventilation to change the direction of the flames and essentially chase the fire out of the back of the house, the chief said.
“It was a great save by the firefighters. They acted quickly and smartly and prevented the fire from spreading. They did a fantastic job,” he said.
Chief Schilling also praised the quick actions of Rafaela Oliveira, who helped evacuate both her eight-year-old sister Brianna and her sight-impaired grandmother. After discovering the fire, her first instinct was to try and extinguish the flames, the chief said, but after filling a pan with water and returning to the bedroom she quickly realized the fire was out of control.
“She realized she had her work cut out for her getting everyone out, and she moved quickly. She didn’t take time to gather up any items — she didn’t even take time to grab her cell phone — which for a teenager is pretty impressive. She kept her head together and deserves a lot of credit,” he said.
Once outside, Ms. Oliveira told her sister to go to a neighbor’s house, which was only about 10 yards away, and call 911 for help.
According to chief Schilling, no residents or fire personnel were injured in the blaze.
Although most of the fire was contained to the rear of the home, the rest of the house did sustain extensive water, smoke and heat damage. For the time being, the building has been deemed uninhabitable and the Oliveira family has been forced to relocate.
The family’s plight has prompted a wide-ranging and generous response from the Island community. The Tisbury school, where Brianna Oliveira is a student, is sponsoring a raffle to benefit the Oliveira family. Parents already have donated two iPods and Red Sox jackets and paraphernalia.
Tisbury School principal Richie Smith said school officials have already tapped into the Manter Fund, a charitable trust established to help students in need each year, to buy new clothes for the Oliveira family. He said the response from the community has been tremendous.
“One man who wishes to remain anonymous came in, someone who does not have a lot of extra money, and he put down $50 and told us to buy tickets for the raffle and put the names of the two girls on all the tickets because they could use [the prizes] more than he could. It sort of makes you realize what a generous community we live in,” he said.
The Oliveira family’s church, the Alliance Community Church on Oak Bluffs, has donated money for their temporary lodging while the Vineyard Harbor Hotel has offered space for the family. Students at both the Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where Rafaela Oliveira is a student, have donated lunch money to help the family.
The family lost all of their possessions in the blaze, including clothing, cash, family photos and documents.
Chief Schilling said the cause of the fire still is under investigation by assistant chief Jim Rogers.
The second fire of the week occurred in Oak Bluffs last Friday at a single-family home at 88 Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Oak Bluffs assistant fire chief Tony Ferreira said the fire was reported just after 4 p.m. by an observer. The owner of the house, Ron Gamba, was not home at the time, and nobody was injured in the blaze.
Structural, smoke and water damage to the home was extensive, and the house will likely be a complete loss, Mr. Ferreira said.
“There was a lot of combustible materials, things like wood beams and flooring, that acted as quick burning fuel for the fire,” Mr. Ferreira said.
About 30 firefighters responded to the call and fire officials quickly deemed it was a defensive operation, meaning that firefighters would not go inside and instead would battle the blaze from the outside. At first, it was unclear if Mr. Gamba or anyone else was inside the building, which made for some tense moments, Mr. Ferreira said.
It took approximately 45 minutes to contain the fire and three hours to make sure it was completely extinguished. Its cause is still under investigation although Mr. Ferreira said there were no indications of suspicious activity.
Fire number three was reported around 4 p.m. Monday when the Edgartown fire department received a call of heavy smoke pouring out of both ends of an unoccupied house at the corner of Ocean boulevard and 21st street North. Edgartown fire officials called for aid from the Oak Bluffs fire department.
Edgartown assistant fire chief Alex Schaeffer said firefighters were able to contain the fire in an open area in the center of the house and minimize the overall damage. Firefighters used an interior attack at first but evacuated when they saw structural damage.
The fire’s cause is under investigation. , the assistant chief said.
Mr. Schaeffer said the fire marked one of the first occasions that firefighters used a product called Class A foam. The foam is a relatively new technology that uses a solution to mix with the water pumped from the trucks; the result is a substance resembling soap suds which is highly effective at knocking down flames.
“It was a great stop by everyone involved,” he said.
Mr. Schaeffer acknowledged he has heard questions from several people as to whether there was an arsonist loose on the Island following the recent spate of fires.
“All indications are there was nothing suspicious about Monday’s fire; and from what I’ve heard there are no such indications with the other fires,” he said. “But I can understand why someone would ask that question [about an arsonist], three major house fires in only five days is a bit unusual for the Vineyard.”