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Fire endangers century-old grange
EAST BETHEL- As the Coolidge family sat down Sunday afternoon for a nice outdoor dinner at their daughter's house, their youngest son, Ryan, spotted fire across the street in their barnyard.
“Quick, someone call 9-1-1!” yelled Ryan. As Ryan began to run to the scene, everyone turned and saw smoke and flames shooting out over the top of their 140-bale hay stock that sat at edge of the field near the historic Alder River Grange Hall.
“It was really scary,” noted Eva Coolidge. “When we got over there, the whole top was on fire and there was a spot close to the ground in between two bales that was on fire. We were running for hoses and buckets, John grabbed the tractor to start pulling the bales away to hose them down and before we knew it, Danny Long was out here with his loader helping to pull the bales away.”
As the fire intensified and the wind shifted, crews from Bethel, Woodstock, Newry and Greenwood fire departments arrived to help extinguish the flames before they spread to the grange hall, nearby homes and the pine forest.
The bales of hay, being four to six feet round in diameter, had to be torn apart to reach the center and ensure all the embers were extinguished. As the flame on one bale would be put out, another would spark up and cause a chain reaction.
State Forest Ranger, Arthur Lavoie, Bethel Chief, Mike Jodrey and Asst. Chief, Jim Young were on the scene Monday afternoon to access the damage and search for clues to how the fire started.
"I have to say I've never seen a spontaneous combustion," noted Lavoie. "But, at this point, with things as dry as they are, anything is possible. We have to rule it suspicious because we don't know exactly how it started."
Lavoie added that April is the worst month for fires, especially this year with as dry as the ground cover is. There have already been 400 acres burnt throughout the state, with 200 of them being in the southern part of the state.
The call came in to through the Oxford County Communications Center at 5:51 p.m. as a possible structure fire. With that call, it's automatic for Newry, Woodstock and Greenwood to offer mutual aid.
"I thought for sure when I got here I was going to see the grange up in flames," noted Asst. Chief, Young. "John and his family had already done quite a bit of work by the time we got here. If it hadn't been for everything they did, there would be a lot more damage than just the hay being lost."
On Monday, the pasture was covered in torn apart bales of hay and was saturated with flame-resistant foam and water, making it unusable for the cows. The Coolidge's will now have to rely on their fields greening up where their cows can be moved for suitable nutrition.
Fire crews cleared the scene at approximately 2 a.m. Monday morning after having an excavator from D.A. Wilson construction in Bethel dismantle all the bales for a good watering down.
John noted, "If it hadn't been for the neighbors, I don't know what we would have done."
John and Eva Coolidge wish to thank area firemen and neighbors who contributed to putting out the fire and saving the surrounding buildings.
The Alder River Grange was originally organized in 1875 in the nearby town of Locke Mills, but wasn't successful and disbanded in 1890. In 1904, with the majority of their members coming from East Bethel, they decided to raise money through bean suppers and build a hall on land in East Bethel donated by James Madison Bartlett.
The Alder River Grange members continue to meet monthly and hold their traditional public suppers.