Hope abounds after fire destroys barn, maple sugar-making site

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A barn and maple sugar-production facility at Sweet Brook Farm burned to the ground Monday night in the midst of a windstorm with gusts close to 70 mph.

No one was hurt, and all the animals escaped the barn unharmed.

Tara Garcia, partner of owner Peter Phelps, said she was doing laundry at about 8:30 p.m. in the farmhouse when she looked out the window and saw the entire rear wall of the barn ablaze.

"The back was fully engulfed," she said. "And it was very quick; the fire burned very fast."

The space where the animals — they include 14 alpacas, one llama and a 2-day-old Black Angus calf named Olive — spend the night in the barn is open to the paddocks outside, so when the barn caught fire, they were able to escape on their own. Although some of the alpacas' coats were slightly singed by flying sparks, the animals were protected by those thick coats.

But the barn was a total loss. It housed a garage and storage area where a four-wheel vehicle and sugaring supplies were stored. It also held the maple sap-processing area, with retaining tanks and boilers, and a pump to drive the sap from the trees, through the line and into the tank. There was also a small farm store and some feed storage areas, and the shelter for the livestock.

Authorities were investigating what sparked the fire. Williamstown firefighters were assisted Monday night by crews from New Ashford, Pownal, Vt., North Adams and Hancock.

Local farmers have been contacting Sweet Brook, offering space to temporarily shelter the livestock while the owners figure out the next step.

"Everybody has been great, calling and asking what we need," Garcia said.

The lines leading to the taps in the maple trees were unharmed, she noted, so if they can secure another pump in the near future, they still can harvest the sap, which likely will start running within the next two or three weeks.

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"We're trying to figure out how we're going to handle things this season," she said.

A GoFundMe page was launched by Sarah Lipinski, Phelps' daughter, to raise money to help get the sugaring operation up and running before the sap runs. By midafternoon Tuesday, more than $3,000 of a $10,000 goal had been raised.

"Watching the barn burn to the ground last night," Lipinski posted on the page, "Peter was already brainstorming how he could rebuild the farm better and more beautiful. Through the shock of what had happened, he displayed remarkable hope and resiliency. At the request of many in our community, I've started this GoFundMe for my father so he can rebuild his dream, put maple syrup back in your kitchen, welcome your families to see the alpacas, and host your loved ones at your weddings."

Lipinski noted that Peter Phelps built Sweet Brook Farm, at 580 Oblong Road, in 2007 and that, as a young man, he saw his father's farm on Sloan Road burn down and rebuilt.

Garcia recalled the sight of the blaze and the hot sparks rising with the smoke.

"It looked like a meteor shower over here," she said.

They had to leave the farmhouse because of its proximity to the blaze, in case it also caught fire, but firefighters were able to contain it.

"We're all safe inside now, and nobody was injured, so we're grateful for that," Garcia said.

"We are humbled by the community support we have experienced in the past 12 hours," Lipinski wrote on her GoFundMe page. "Thank you, from the absolute bottom of my heart, for all of the kindness and support you have shown to our family."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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