Update 2:30 pm
An irrigation worker is being credited with saving a Chilmark house on Cross Rip Lane after his company’s van caught fire in the driveway.
Chilmark Assistant Fire Chief Timothy Carroll told The Times the man jumped into the vehicle while it was in flames and drove it away from the home.
“I think it was foolish to jump into a burning truck. However, his actions likely saved the house,” Mr. Carroll said.
Gilmar Alvez was part of a two-man Contemporary Landscapes crew at the house on Abel’s Hill Friday morning, coworker Matt Flynn said. While he and Mr. Flynn were cleaning out irrigation lines with compressed air, the compressor in the van caught fire and exploded. Neither he nor Mr. Alvez was injured, Mr. Flynn said. The flames quickly became vigorous and began to encroach on the house.
“I saw I needed to move the truck,” Mr. Alvez said.
Mr. Alvez jumped behind the wheel of the flaming van and drove it up the driveway, according to Mr. Flynn, but the van started to roll back after he parked it. He jumped back in and pulled the emergency brake and managed not to get burned.
“That was like the scariest thing I ever experienced,” Mr. Flynn said.
Chilmark police chief Jonathan Klaren said a call for fire, police, and EMS came in at approximately 10:32 am.
The vehicle was a “ball of fire” when Mr. Carroll rolled on the scene with the crew of Chilmark brush breaker 131 — so much so that the shape of the vehicle was indiscernible. They immediately went to work dousing the van with the breaker’s front-end water cannon, Mr. Carroll said. Most of the fire was knocked down swiftly, but the Chilmark crew ran out of water before it was completely extinguished, Mr. Carroll said.
“I could still see flames coming out of the hood of the van when I got there,” Contemporary Landscapes owner Caleb Nicholson said after rushing to Chilmark from his office in Vineyard Haven.
Two West Tisbury tankers arrived on the scene and provided the extra water necessary to douse out the van, Mr. Carroll said.
Mr. Nicholson called Mr. Alvez’s actions “heroic.” Mr. Alvez was examined in the back of a Tri-town ambulance on scene and released. He said the van was filled with smoke but he felt okay, Mr. Flynn said.
Not long after Mr. Alvez was released, Chilmark fighters went back to work and hosed down smoldering pockets inside what was left of the van.
Mr. Carroll said the cause of the fire was probably “equipment malfunction,” but with so little of the vehicle left to examine, no definitive answer may ever be reached. Since the compressor was powered by a gas motor, it’s possible that was where the fire started, he said.
If not for the clear road signs on North Abel’s Hill Road, Mr. Carroll said, firefighters never would have made it to the scene in time to prevent the fire from jumping to the house and its garage. Mr. Alvez’s act bought the fire department time, Mr. Carroll said, but the fire inevitably was going to spread. He added that he wanted to use this incident to point out that private road owners must post clear directional signs, especially at intersections. Otherwise they run the risk of firefighters losing time en route to fire calls. GPS “cannot be relied on” once a fire truck leaves public roads, he said.
Editor’s note: Story updated to include details and eyewitness accounts.