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Fire adds to Brimfield’s string of misfortunes

52-acre fire adds to town’s string of misfortunes

Bill Greene/Globe staff

Brimfield is still trying to remove trees damaged by a June tornado and other storms.

BRIMFIELD - The majestic trees that once enclosed Steven Bush’s home and glowed with spectacular color in the fall now stand bare of limbs or lie bone-dry and broken on the ground, snapped like toothpicks in several major tempests over the past year.

And similar trees behind those, also broken in the storms, became kindling Wednesday for a raging fire that blackened 52 acres in the town and nipped at the edge of Bush’s property.

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The conflagration was the latest in a list of calamities to hit Brimfield over the past year. In addition to the devastating June tornado that swept away 42 homes, the remnants of a hurricane felled more of the town’s trees in August, vast flooding canceled a popular flea market in September, and a snowstorm knocked out power for more than a week in October.

“One tiny ember, just one tiny ember and you got yourself a major fire,’’ Bush said Thursday, taking a break from clearing the downed trees from his property with his tractor. His newly built house, replacing the one destroyed by the June 1 tornado, sits atop a hill off Paige Hill Road.

Thousands of acres of twisted wood dominate the landscape here, despite ongoing cleanup efforts. Lower-than-usual precipitation since November has caused arid and volatile conditions that facilitated Wednesday’s blaze.

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The fire threatened eight homes but was beaten back by firefighters before this town of about 3,500 residents suffered any more serious property damage, according to Fire Chief Fred Piechota. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Bush takes last year’s pounding by Mother Nature as a condition of living here. And other residents expressed similar stoic views Thursday as many worked to repair damage from the most recent disaster.

“We’re more self-reliant out here,’’ said Conrad St. Laurent, eating lunch with his boss, David Poirier, at Athens Pizza on Route 20. “If we run into a tree across the road, we go home, get a saw, and cut it down.’’

Poirier, owner of R.J. Poirier Construction, a home building company, said the local resolve is forged by tough New England weather and a strong sense of community.

“We pitch in, help each other, and move on,’’ he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Poirier said several residents whose homes were destroyed by the tornado chose to move out of town, but many others accept the devastation while marveling at the dramatic change in the appearance of the town.

“All the landmarks are gone, 54 years here and I’m getting lost now because there are no boundaries left,’’ Poirier said.

And the town continues to battle the legacy of the tornado.

Dianne Panaccione, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said residents who lost homes to the twister are frustrated by the pace of the response from their insurance companies. Of the 42 homes destroyed, only six or seven have been rebuilt or are in the process of being reconstructed, she said.

“This whole weather situation has been crazy. I mean who would have thought that a tornado would touch down in Brimfield,’’ she said. “And this brush fire kind of tops everything off.’’

Piechota said the tons of dry brush pose an extreme danger and the department is on high alert.

“Our citizens as well as our emergency service responders have had their share of excitement, if you will, and their share of trials,’’ he said.

He said the potential for fire probably won’t subside until the area gets significant rainfall and green foliage emerges.

On top of the natural disasters, Brimfield residents saw MGM Resorts abandon plans to build a $600 million casino resort on a secluded site, saying the land would not meet the needs of its ambitious project - one that would have greatly enhanced the town’s coffers.

“It was a shock when we heard they were coming in, and it was a shock when they went away,’’ Panaccione said.

This week, she said, residents have expressed frustration at the pace of the town’s tree-removal service, hired at a cost of about $400,000.

“It’s moving slower than many residents would like, but there is just so much wood to be hauled out,’’ Panaccione said.

The town, which has an $8 million operating budget, usually issues burning permits to residents from Jan. 15 through May 1, but on Sunday all burning was banned. Nearby towns, such as Holland and Wales, have offered to help by accepting wood from Brimfield residents.

Ron Weston, owner of Hollow Brook Farms in Brimfield, is surrounded by the 800-acre Brimfield State Forest - and “mountains’’ of dry brush.

The 130-acre farm, which he has owned for 42 years, has about 22,000 Christmas trees planted and is used as a site for weddings and other special events. He is still trying to recover from the tornado, he said, and his business could not withstand a serious brush fire.

“I’ve been working trying to get something done,’’ he said. “The more dry weather that we have the more risk there is.’’

With the number of dead trees and other highly flammable organic materials littering the ground, it would be very difficult to control a fire once it got going.

However, he said recent town laws are preventing residents from using most typical methods to clear the fallen trees.

“I’m trying to pile it and there’s restrictions saying you can’t pile it too high,’’ Weston said. “I have a lot of trees, and I’ve got a lot of land.’’

He said farmers used to be able to burn year-round, but that practice has been abolished, leaving residents with only the option of hiring a company to clear the land. He said it would take three days to clear his land. And at $7,000 per day, he said, that is just not possible.

With no sign of spring rain in weather forecasts, Weston said that the possibility of a serious forest fire looms.

“We need a state that’s going to recognize the problem and do something about it,’’ he said.

Alli Knothe contributed to this report. Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.
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