Oak Bluffs barn fire under investigation

The late-night blaze on Elisha Lane may have been arson.

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Two weeks after a fire destroyed their barn on Elisha Lane in Oak Bluffs, Ralph and Tammy Smith await the results of an investigation before they can begin cleaning up. Some of the evidence may point to arson, Mr. Smith told The Times in a phone conversation Tuesday.

In the meantime, the Smiths are coping with what he estimates is an uninsured loss of $150,000 to $200,000, including not only the 30-year-old structure but also farm equipment, tools, hay, seed, and grain.

“The investigators have been out a couple of times, and they cleaned off the barn floor toward the center of the barn,” he said. “While they were pushing the ashes back, they found a burn pattern of an accelerant on the floor. And there was a gas can out behind the barn that wasn’t ours.”

The plastic gas can was badly melted, Mr. Smith added: “I don’t think you’d be able to get anything off it.”

Mr. Smith said another clue is that a door his son had previously locked was found open: “He had put the Bobcat in earlier, so it would be all ready for the snow that was coming, and closed everything up tight.”

Oak Bluffs Fire Department Chief John Rose said in a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday said that the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and that he has not received an official determination yet.

Engulfed in flames

Chief Rose said the fire was reported around 10:30 pm on Feb. 8 by an Eversource employee. Mr. Smith said Pete Hatt noticed a glow in the sky and saw flames from the blazing barn as he left work at the electric company’s Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road facility. Mr. Hatt quickly drove over in his company truck to cut the power to the barn and to a transformer.

Mr. Smith said his wife was asleep at the time. Brian Hall, their next-door neighbor, who lives in a house about 100 feet away from the barn, realized it was on fire after hearing an aerosol can explode. He alerted Mrs. Smith, who called her husband just as he was leaving a friend’s house. “I got here before the fire department did,” Mr. Smith said, adding, “I came in, and you couldn’t get near the barn — it was just a total blaze.”

Chief Rose said his department had equipment on the scene within a few minutes.

“I was one of the first arriving personnel, and the roof had already collapsed at that point,” he said.

Oak Bluffs EMS, the Edgartown Fire Department and EMS, and the Tisbury Fire Department also responded. “At the scene there were seven engines, and then there was an engine from Tisbury that was standing by at my station to cover any additional calls we might have had in our town at that time,” Chief Rose said.

Assessing the losses

“Since the main building was already engulfed in flames, there wasn’t much to save there, so we concentrated initially on two surrounding structures, including a chicken coop,” Chief Rose said. The damage to those was minor.

Mr. Smith said the chicken coop, a plywood structure about 10 to 12 feet away from the barn, was smoldering from the fire’s radiated heat when the firefighters arrived. The coop is rented for an egg business, and houses about 75 to 80 chickens.

The barn, approximately 50 x 75 feet, contained about 30 round, 2,000-pound bales of hay and 100 square bales for feed for the Smiths’ six cows, currently kept offsite for the winter at a farm in Chilmark. The barn also held chicken feed and grain, a refrigerator for eggs, tools, a Bobcat, a hay baler, and other farm equipment. Although no farm animals were housed in the barn, Mr. Smith said one of two barn cats did not survive the fire.

“There’s a refrigerator inside the barn that we kept the eggs in, and then people came in and got them when they wanted,” Mr. Smith said. “We didn’t lock the barn. There was a steel lock box there, and people left the money for the eggs in it — it didn’t melt in the fire.”

Asked if he thought money might be a motive for possible arson, Mr. Smith said, “I doubt it — it was probably a grudge match or something. The egg money box was there, but it was broken open. There was maybe $10 in it.”

Communications lag

Chief Rose said the barn fire took about four hours to extinguish, because many of the hay bales were behind newer bales that had just been added to the stock, and they were hard to reach and extinguish.

“It took lots of manpower to get to the bales of hay,” he explained. “We had to bring in a small excavator at the end to pick the bales up and move them out of the way so we could get to the hay that was still burning. They were just hard to put out. You can put as much water on them as you want, but if you don’t actually get to where they’re burning, sometimes they just don’t go out.”

Chief Rose said there were no injuries to the firefighters, and EMS provided aid as they worked. The biggest frustration, he said, was the continued struggles that the Island’s emergency responders have with radio communication in large emergency situations.

Instead of being able to radio another fire truck or emergency vehicle directly, Chief Rose said, messages must be relayed back and forth through the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center. That, he said, hampers operations at the scene.

What’s next

The fire’s aftermath brought the suspension of a long family tradition for Mr. Smith. His father, Elisha Smith, an Oak Bluffs farmer and for years the president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, died in 2013. He had raised cows on the property since he was a boy. Mr. Smith had continued that tradition after he retired from a job at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. After all the hay was destroyed in the fire, however, he said he cannot afford to keep his cows.

“We got them loaded up yesterday, and I think they went off today to the market,” he said. “We had pretty much just enough feed to get through till spring, when they would start eating grass again.”

As for the next step, Mr. Smith said when he gets the OK to clean up, he’ll pick up all his Craftsman hand tools, which have a lifetime guarantee, and get them replaced. He also may apply for an agricultural loan or grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rebuild the barn.

“We’ve had a lot of offers for help, whatever we need, and it’s greatly appreciated,” Mr. Smith said.

He suggested that anyone who might have heard or seen anything suspicious in regard to the fire contact the Oak Bluffs Police Department at 508-693-0750.