By ANDY KIRKALDY
ADDISON — The owners of an Addison farm that lost a large two-story, calf barn to a fast-moving fire early on Feb. 6 say they are profoundly grateful to the 70 firefighters from five local departments who saved 92 of the 107 animals in the structure and prevented the fire from spreading to nearby structures. Four buildings, including a home and two major freestall barns full of milkers, were within about 60 feet of the huge blaze.
Despite the loss of 15 calves, a loft half-full of hay and the 5,040-square-foot barn to the 3:30 a.m. fire, Jacob Gosliga — one of seven members of the Gosliga family who own the Sunset Lane dairy farm — said they were all “very thankful” for the firefighters who prevented a much sadder outcome.
“It was just fabulous ... They did such a wonderful job. I couldn’t thank them enough for the service they did for us,” Gosliga said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Jacob’s wife, Alice Gosliga, echoed his sentiments about firefighters’ efforts against a blaze so hot it warped some vinyl siding on their home about 60 feet from the barn.
“We feel blessed,” she said. “We’re very pleased with how things went.”
Addison Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Mulliss, who served as the incident commander at the blaze, agreed events could have played out differently during what he believes was the largest structure fire in Addison since the 1970s.
“For the scenario we had out there, it came out as good as it could,” Mulliss said. “It was about as close to losing everything as they could get.”
At least some factors worked in favor of firefighters from Addison, Bridport, Vergennes, New Haven and Weybridge.
For one, Sunset Lane, on the north side of Route 17 just west of Addison Four Corners, is less than a half-mile from the Addison Fire Department. Also, although the 10-below-zero temperatures that night made equipment balky and firefighters uncomfortable, to say the least, the air in the notoriously windy area was for once calm.
“The wind conditions were in our favor,” Mulliss said.
Fortunately the Gosligas were also already up milking. Jacob’s sister, Grace Gosliga, saw the smoke at about 3:30 a.m. and quickly called 911.
Even though the red, gambrel-roof barn itself was beyond help when firefighters arrived — Vergennes Deputy Chief Jim Breur said when the tone sounded at his Lake Street home, seven miles to the west, he could see the flames already outlined against the slopes east of the Gosliga farm — the quick response gave them precious time to work on saving the other buildings.
Still, the layout posed unique problems for Mulliss and his lieutenants. The blazing barn was tucked in among three other buildings. It ran north-south along one of the newer barns, just 20 feet away along most of its 140-foot length and 10 feet away from an entrance. The plastic wind sheeting along the side of the newer barn was already melting away when firefighters arrived.
Twenty feet to the north of the barn, which was fully involved in fire, stood a two-story storage shed. Siding on its upper story facing the barn was catching on fire when firefighters hit the scene. Jacob and Alice Gosliga’s home stands about 40 feet east of that shed. About 50 feet south of the burning calf barn was one end of the largest of the Gosligas’ freestall barns.
Just to complicate matters, a tractor next to the calf barn at first wouldn’t start in the cold weather. Mulliss said firefighters had a lot of problems to solve.
“We had a lot of exposures,” he said.
Teams managed to extinguish the shed siding, get the tractor moved, and damp down the barn to the south. But the barn running parallel to and 20 feet west of the burning building posed the biggest immediate threat of a second fire, Mulliss said.
Firefighters moved to either end of the blaze and established what Mulliss likened to a wall of water between the two structures, while also wetting down the newer barn to prevent sparks that made it through from igniting a new fire.
“We put up a water curtain between the barns,” Mulliss said. “We set up hoses at both ends of the barn, and just sprayed water between them.”
RESCUING THE CALVES
Meanwhile, other firefighters worked on the main fire, bringing it under control after about 90 minutes. It was then, recalled Jacob Gosliga, they realized that while the second story was completely gone, much of the first story, which contained the calves, was intact.
“They said they could see the calves walking around in there. They asked me if I wanted them to go in and get them,” Gosliga said.
Firefighters then entered the structure and began evacuating the animals as quickly as possible, pausing once, Gosliga said, when it looked like the upper-level fire might rage out of control again.
Mulliss said teams worked inside and outside the building to save the animals.
“We had a lot of people going into the barn, and we were handing them out through the doors and windows, and there were people there to take them away,” Mulliss said.
Firefighters carried the calves and used carts to take the animals into a heated equipment shed and into warmer barns where the vulnerable animals could survive the frigid weather; they were covered with blankets as much as possible. Earlier this week, Jacob Gosliga said all that made it out of the barn were still alive.
“It’s a wonderful blessing, and they’re doing well,” he said. “It’s wonderful we didn’t lose them all.”
As dawn broke, Mulliss released the full contingents from Vergennes and New Haven and the tanker truck from Weybridge. Bridport firefighters worked with their Addison colleagues until the early afternoon excavating and removing the barn’s smoldering debris to the edge of a field north of the freestall barns, where random sparks could do no further damage. That pile was still smoking on Tuesday.
“The guys were feeling the cold,” Mulliss said. “The guys all did a great job, from all the departments. I’m really proud of them.”
Also at about dawn on Friday, investigators from the Addison County Firefighters Association arrived and spent at least two hours on the scene. Mulliss said they were able to learn the fire started on the east side of the barn about 30 or 40 feet from its north end, but were unable to pin down how the blaze ignited. The cause was officially listed as undetermined, and no one believes it was suspicious.
“We really couldn’t come up with the cause,” Mulliss said.
Investigators were hampered by the condition of the structure.
“There was such an involvement of fire when we got there,” Mulliss said. “There was extensive damage before we were able to get in and do a lot of investigation.”
Looking forward, Jacob Gosliga said his family believes there is “no question” they will build a new calf barn, and that they have at least some insurance that will back them in doing so.
“We’ll get help. I don’t think it will be enough to replace it, but it will be a nice help,” he said. “I feel confident, especially with the insurance money.”