4 hurt as N.H. fire destroys 50 buildings

4 hurt as N.H. fire destroys 50 buildings

13 April 2009

published by www.boston.com

USA — About 50 structures were destroyed and four firefighters were injured in a multiple-alarm blaze yesterday at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center.

It was not clear where the fire started, but two cottages were reported burning about 4:30 p.m. and strong wind caused the fire to spread quickly, officials at the scene said. The fire was put out by about 9 p.m.

“The fire burned through four streets and left firefighters with skeleton crews because there was so much burning,” said K.G. Lockwood, chief of the Gilmanton Fire Department, which responded along with more than 50 other fire departments, with crews coming from as far as Hooksett and Dover.

Officials from the Alton Fire Department were not available for comment last night.

Firetrucks were parked bumper-to-bumper along Riverlake Street, and hoses snaked through intersections as firefighters hurried from site to site.

“It was terribly, terribly windy, which really took everything out in a hurry,” said Dale Schaeffner, who oversees facilities and maintenance at the conference center.

Schaeffner said staff in the conference center’s main building worked last night to prepare an Easter supper for the crews who fought the blaze.

There was a small worship service held yesterday morning, but very few people were at the conference center when the afternoon fire started, officials said.

“It was a tremendous blessing,” said Russ Sample, a volunteer staff member at the conference center. “Had this happened eight weeks later [during the busier summer season], all these buildings could have been full.”

Many of the buildings, which are mostly privately owned residential cottages, were unoccupied, and there were no reports of civilian injuries last night. Fire officials at the scene said at least four firefighters were injured, bur they did not have details.

“It’s very scary,” said Brian Mitchell, an Alton resident whose business and home occupy a 160-year-old building near the site. He helped neighbors fight the fire using hoses and buckets. “We just kept rushing to fill up buckets,” said Mitchell.

Between 10 and 15 propane tanks ignited during the fire, causing explosions that looked “like a small atomic bomb had gone off,” Mitchell said. Nearby brush also was ablaze.

In 2003, four cottages at the conference center were destroyed in a fire. The conference center, which was founded in 1863, has 175 cottages on its premises.

Yesterday’s fire forced the closure of part of Route 11 in Alton. The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative reported that more than 2,000 customers in Alton and Gilford had lost power because of the fire.

Service was expected to be restored by early today, according to data posted on the utility company’s website.

The state fire marshal is due to begin an investigation this morning into the cause of the fire.

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