SALISBURY — Driven by powerful winds, a massive, 9-alarm fire destroyed a seaside motel and four residential buildings here early Monday, displacing dozens of residents as heavy flames and thick smoke poured through the town on the New Hampshire border.
More than 100 firefighters and 30 pieces of fire equipment from Massachusetts and New Hampshire responded to the fire that broke out shortly before 2 a.m. near Michael’s Oceanfront Motel on Central Avenue, officials said.
The fire was reported by a Massachusetts Department of Transportation employee who saw smoke and flames coming from the area near the motel, Salisbury Fire Chief Scott Carrigan and State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said in a joint statement.
High winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour and heavy rain created harsh conditions for firefighters who battled the blaze until late morning.
Salisbury Fire Captain Andrew Murphy said the fire was the largest in the town in 25 years.
“We had hurricane-force winds,” Murphy told WBZ-TV. “We did everything we could.”
There were no injuries. Two occupants of the motel escaped safely. Many of the surrounding homes were unoccupied seasonal properties. Some nearby properties were also damaged, the statement said.
“Our top priority throughout the night was to protect the surrounding community from a large and growing fire that was being pushed toward other structures by high wind conditions,” Carrigan said in the statement.
Residents credited police and firefighters for alerting residents as flames burned through multiple buildings amid a fierce storm.
“An officer pounded on my door and screamed everybody has to evacuate this area, there’s a fire right up the street and it’s coming your way,” resident John McGuirk told WBZ and WCVB-TV.
By Monday afternoon, the motel and the residences were reduced to mounds of charred rubble along the beach just north of the Blue Ocean Music Hall.
One single-family home, which sat to the south of the motel, was built around 1920, according to town property records. Not even a wall was still standing, but four aqua blue deck chairs remained around a fire pit, facing the beach, untouched by the flames that decimated the house a few yards behind it.
An apartment building at 42 Central Ave. sustained damage with much of its blue vinyl siding melted and warped from the heat that was emitted as the motel and other buildings burned.
By mid-afternoon, dozens of people from Salisbury and surrounding communities descended on the scene to get a glimpse of the damage and walk along the beach as large waves crashed onto the shore. Many said they were shocked by how quickly the flames spread and consumed the residences that had sat there for years.
With homes packed close together, the devastation could have been worse, they said.
“Thank goodness for the rain,” said Barbara Lauria, 64, as she stood with her husband, Anthony, 63, looking at the destruction.
Linda Cohen, 66, said she and her husband, Stu, 66, live a few blocks away and were woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of fire trucks speeding by their home.
“I opened the shades and just saw smoke billowing,” Linda Cohen said. She was concerned, “just knowing how close all the houses were, and you could see the wind.”
A small stretch of Central Avenue remained closed to traffic on Monday afternoon, roped off with yellow police tape as a Salisbury police cruiser idled with its blue lights flashing. Two National Grid trucks were parked nearby as crews worked on power lines along the road.
The exact cause of the blaze remains under investigation by the state fire marshal’s office and Salisbury fire, officials said.
The motel on Central Avenue is located north of Salisbury Beach center, a popular summer spot famous for its arcades, shops, and restaurants.
According to town property records, the motel has an assessed value of more than $1 million and is owned by Gina and Thomas Cloutier of Salem, N.H.
A woman who answered the phone at their home declined to speak to the Globe Monday.
A stretch of North End Boulevard, a main road off the beach center, was closed for most of the day.
Power and utilities also were cut off to the area. A warming center was opened at the town’s senior center, located at 43 Lafayette Road, police said.
A massive cleanup lies ahead. An estimate on the amount of fire damage and loss was not immediately available. Donations were already pouring in from the community Monday night.
Members of the Seabrook Lions Club carried boxes filled with bagels, muffins, and other food into the senior center.
Residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged spent the night at an area hotel, said Bob Cook, Salisbury’s deputy emergency director and former fire chief.
It was a long day for many, including Cook, who happened to be awake when he first began hearing reports about the fire around 2 a.m. Cook, who spent 55 years with the Fire Department, said he had a feeling Monday could be busy with a storm rolling in, but he couldn’t have predicted the town would be faced with its worst fire in a couple of decades.
“I knew right off the bat because of the location of the building that it was going to be serious and [firefighters] were going to have their hands full,” he said in an interview at the Salisbury Senior Center.
“The fire occurred in a very congested area,” he said. “They ended up striking nine alarms on this fire. They did a fabulous job of containing it to just [those] buildings.”
Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and correspondent Allana J. Barefield contributed to this report.