Mutual aid Berkshires boon


Saturday March 5, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.

That's the prevailing idea behind a mutual aid firefighting system in which departments from around the county help battle blazes in neighboring communities.

Evidence of that system was on display this week as various regional departments responded to three devastating house fires in three days. Homes in Becket and Lenox were destroyed on Monday, while a waterfront home in Otis was left in ruins on Wednesday.

Despite efforts to save the structures, all three were declared total losses. Officials have yet to release official causes for the fires, but wood-burning stoves are suspected in two cases and a faulty clothes dryer in the other.

"Berkshire County has had a great mutual aid system for many years," Great Barrington Deputy Fire Chief Edward G. McCormick said Friday. "Mutual aid is extremely important to all our communities. We have to depend on our neighbors for manpower."

Becket Fire Chief Raymond Tarjick and Otis Fire Chief Sandy Pinkham echoed that sentiment at Wednesday's fire in Otis, where firefighters from nine area departments -- including equipment and members from two from Hampden County departments and one Hampshire County department -- battled a burning house on Vine Street overlooking Otis Reservoir.

Late Monday afternoon, however, Tarjick was busy dealing with a fire in his own town, where a one-story wood cabin was quickly reduced to ashes in Becket's Sherwood Forest section.

Firefighters from Lenox grappled with a late-morning blaze on Monday that destroyed a trailer in the Berkshire Mobile Home Park on Pittsfield Road (Route 7 & 20). The structure was a total loss, according to Lenox Fire Chief Daniel Clifford.

McCormick, who's also a countywide fire coordinator in the Berkshires, said mutual aid is a concept embraced by every area department, including the county's two full-time city departments in Pittsfield and North Adams.

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"We work together. There's a Berkshire County Fire Chiefs' Association that meets every month where we discuss this," he said.

A fire chief or incident commander typically determines if additional manpower is necessary, issuing a second or third alarm to summon additional firefighting resources.

"You might call more than you need, but to have enough water to support an incident, you may need six to eight tankers to supply the water to make it safe to fight a fire," McCormick said. "One of the things that we preach is that you need a continuous water supply."

Due to a dearth of fire hydrants and a lack of accessible public water supplies in the Berkshires, many fires in rural sections of the county are fought by the so-called tanker shuttle method. In such instances, multiple tanker trucks ferry water to a portable holding pool erected near a fire site. That enables pumper trucks to draw from the pool, which is continually replenished with new water.

"It takes a lot of coordination and planning," McCormick said of the shuttle method.

Three is a portentous number in firefighting circles, which is why McCormick wasn't surprised that three homes were destroyed in three days this week.

"We always say it runs in threes. Some how, some way, it seems to do that," he said.

Otis fire officials said they believe the Vine Street fire was caused by a lit wood-burning stove that was left unattended while the homeowners went skiing. The Lenox and Becket fires remain under investigation, although a wood stove also appears to be the culprit in the Becket blaze, according to Tarjick.

A preliminary report from Lenox Fire Chief Daniel Clifford indicated that the cause of the mobile home fire may have stemmed from a malfunctioning clothes dryer. Lenox Fire Lieutenant Jason Saunders said Friday that the fire remains under investigation.

To reach Conor Berry:,
or (413) 496-6249.


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