Mark Collier / Staff Photo The home of Brad and Rita Towne on Three Mile Bridge Road in Berlin burns late Wednesday. The flames spread from a hay barn.
By David Taube
BERLIN — A fire destroyed a hay barn four and a half stories tall and a neighboring historic farmhouse late Wednesday on Three Mile Bridge Road.
Brad Towne, who lived there with his family, was still wearing a sweater Thursday morning that he had received for Christmas, one of the few items the fire did not destroy.
The barn had 1,500 large bales of hay, which was not as much as the 20,000 the barn sometimes had held. The massive fire tore through the structure, bringing the sides to the ground within a few hours.
Motorists along Interstate 89 could see the flames, and smoke and ashes billowed twice as high as an old maple tree next to the home.
The home was rebuilt in the 1880s after a fire destroyed the original structure. The adjacent barn had remained standing from that first blaze, though. At one point, the cellar of the barn was connected to the summer portion of the home.
“As kids, we had a great time playing hide and seek,” Towne recalled on Thursday.
Towne’s grandfather acquired the property in the 1920s, and his mother, Ruth Towne, who served in the Vermont Legislature for 26 years and died in 2007, had also lived in the home.
Brad Towne’s wife, Rita, was in the home when the barn fire began, but a passing motorist stopped and alerted her to the blaze.
She said she went back into the home to call 911 from a landline because that was the quickest way to reach firefighters. Her husband, who is chairman of the Berlin Select Board, was at a meeting.
The passerby then told her to leave as the barn quickly was consumed by flames, Rita Towne said late Wednesday.
The fire began from a piece of farm equipment, and the cause was not suspicious, state investigators determined.
Berlin Fire Chief Miles Silk Jr. said a skid steer, similar to a Bobcat used by cities for plowing sidewalks, presumably malfunctioned inside the barn.
The fire was called in to a Montpelier dispatcher around 8:40 p.m.; initially it was believed there were horses inside the barn.
Fortunately, the horses were in a nearby barn that serves as a stable and arena and that was unaffected by the fire, Rita Towne said.
Many neighbors helped form a line to guide the 12 horses and a pony into a fenced area farther away from the fire, but several animals panicked. Rita Towne said they recognized her voice and eventually responded, but one knocked into a volunteer.
Silk, the fire chief, said the barn was almost on the ground when East Montpelier reached the scene — a town department closer to the property than Berlin’s fire department.
Brad Towne owns and rents out a house across the road, and he recalled Thursday that he didn’t realize the fire was at his own home until he saw the blaze.
Around 10:20 p.m., flames from the back of the house rose from the ground as high as the remaining portion of the two-story home. An interior wall quickly dropped.
The historic home had three chimneys, all of which fell to the ground. The home had been divided into two living quarters because, in the past, families would cook in one section of the home to avoid the additional heat generated from cooking during the summer, Brad Towne said.
Berlin firefighters and 10 other area fire departments responded. The fire became under control around 2:30 or 3 a.m. Thursday, and as firefighters prepared to leave, a 6- or 7-foot flame re-emerged from a house cellar, said Silk. Fire crews cleared the scene at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday.
The couple spent the night in a small heated room next to the stable where saddles go.
A house cat named Jack was injured in the fire and was being treated by a veterinarian Thursday. Rita Towne said late Wednesday that she had not seen the two barn cats.
The couple’s daughter, Bethany, 20, was having Christmas dinner with her boyfriend and his family at the time of the fire. The couple’s son, Nathan, 23, was at a friend’s house.
Others have offered help, from providing hay to living quarters. The family has a relative nearby.
The home and barn were insured.
Brad Towne said they could rebuild.
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