ASHBY — Battling heat and flames, firefighters from more than 20 departments across Massachusetts and New Hampshire continued efforts to extinguish a brush fire at a composting site along Log Cabin Road for a second day on Thursday.
Although countless firefighters had worked since early Wednesday morning, Ashby Fire Chief Mark Bussell said the blaze continued in spite of their efforts. After arriving on scene Wednesday and assessing the extent of the fire, Bussell said the Ashby Fire Department signaled for mutual aid.
“We get here and the brush, mulch, everything was burning — and has continued to burn (Thursday) — so we made the call,” Bussell said.
As of Thursday, Bussell said the cause of the fire was unknown, but an investigation by local authorities and the State Fire Marshal’s Office was underway. He said it would be “at least another few days” until the investigation was complete.
Tanker trucks from Antrim and Rindge, N.H., as well as Paxton, Walpole, Winchester and a dozen other fire departments across Massachusetts, made the back-and-forth trek between Log Cabin Road and a pond behind the nearby Fitchburg Rod & Gun Club Thursday, transporting critical water to fight the blaze.
Bussel said, without them, they would “never get the fire out.”
“We’ve had them back and forth constantly since (Wednesday),” he said. “We need to have enough water up here that we can maintain a stream — we don’t want to start, stop, start, stop over and over again cause then we’ll never get the fire out.”
In a period of severe drought across the state, Bussell estimated his department and those rendering mutual aid used about 1.6 million gallons of water to battle the blaze on Wednesday. He expected similar water usage Thursday and even more by the time their work would be done, which could be as late as the weekend.
“We’ll probably have used upwards of three million gallons by the time we’re done here,” he said.
Fortunately, the fire was contained to the brush pile and damage to a nearby farm, located at 147 Log Cabin Road, and other nearby wooded areas was avoided. But, given the height of the pile — brush, mulch and other vegetation reach as high as 50 feet in some areas — Bussell said the fire could continue to burn for days.
“Fortunately the fire was pretty quick to contain within the pile itself, now we’re just trying to extinguish which can take a lot of time and water,” he said. “Based on what we’ve seen these last two days, I would expect it to burn into the weekend.”
The property at 147 Log Cabin Road has been the cause of friction between the town and the property’s neighbors. In 2019, more than 40 neighbors attended a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to express concerns for their safety, pertaining to the drinking water. The meeting came after the owners Robert and Tony Ethier were issued a cease and desist order by then Building Commissioner Peter Niall.
According to neighbors, the owners were using the property as a dumping ground for parking lot snow, trash, concrete and compost.
However, at the meeting Jeremy Ethier contended that the site was only handling compost and the operation was following state regulations. Ethier also argued the property was a farm and not a private business, which would have been allowed by town zoning laws.
The Zoning Board of Appeals upheld the decision several days later. The town’s cease and desist order is still in place as of Thursday, according to Town Administrator Christine Lindberg.
Given the fire, Lindberg said the situation has “surpassed anything the town could do” and that the issue had “moved up to the state level.” She also said that representatives of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Massachusetts Environmental Police and other state agencies had visited the site since Wednesday.
“That’s why everybody has been here — MassDEP, MEMA, DCR — to see the results of what we’ve been trying to enforce and hold (Ethier) accountable for and to see that, despite being told to stop, (Ethier) has continued.”
While Lindberg would not comment on any future action by Ashby or the state, she said the town would continue to work with those state agencies “in order to determine the next steps.”
Lindberg and Bussell praised the men and women on the scene that helped the town fight the blaze. Both also recognized the Leominster Emergency Canteen — a volunteer arm of the city’s Office of Emergency Management — to keep firefighters hydrated and fed.
“I am extremely impressed and grateful for the mutual aid that these towns have provided,” Lindberg said.
“The men and women here, the towns and other departments that are here to help us, I can’t thank them enough,” Bussell said. “Their work has been invaluable and I honestly don’t know where we’d be without them.”