B y Jaime Thomas
The James’s were proud of their 1865 farmhouse.
They’d recently installed new wood floors, renovated a bathroom and were updating several of the many bedrooms.
In fact, they were one payment away from owning it completely. All of that disappeared, though, when a fire consumed their West Pawlet, Vt. home in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
The 10 extended family members that lived in the house are now homeless and without possessions, but they’re not complaining.
“Beyond every cloud there’s a silver lining. God’s got plans for us somehow, because we all made it out,” said Vern James. He and his wife Emma, along with six of their children, grandchildren and great-nieces, are now staying at the Pine Grove Motel; the two other family members living with them are elsewhere.
Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the Button Falls Road fire, which left the tight-knit family with nothing but each other.
It was James’ daughter Tosha who awoke at 3 a.m. to what she thought was hail falling on the roof. Investigating the loud noise, she saw an orange glow, realized the roof was ablaze and woke her family, who immediately evacuated. The James’ said everyone followed a practiced plan to meet at a maple tree in front of the house in the event of an emergency.
“If it wasn’t for Tosha though, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” her twin sister Tonee said, a praise that was repeated by her parents. “We got each other, and that’s what’s important.”
Vern said once everyone was accounted for, he reentered the home, which was more fully ablaze with pieces of the roof falling down.
“I ran back in and I looked around and realized it’s all gone, and then I turned around and ran back out,” he said emotionally.
Community immediately jumped in
As firefighters from 10 area departments arrived on scene to quench the fire, the family went to the Pine Grove. To their surprise, help arrived before they did.
“The house was still burning and the Red Cross was here,” Vern said, as were members of the community.
“In the middle of the night, they had their own families to take care of and they took care of another family. It’s been so warm, even strangers—it’s just awesome,” Vern said. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he couldn’t be more grateful.
“It’s overwhelming; it’s phenomenal what’s happening. It’s unreal— so many of the community’s people that see us on the streets and hand us gifts. Coming in from all angles,” he said. “It’s remarkable what people are doing.”
Only hours after the shock of their situation began to sink in, countless organizations and individuals began pouring supplies and support onto them. The children’s teachers gave them more nights at the motel, for example, while the American Legion in Hudson Falls raised supplies as well. Local churches, the Mettawee School, and others have collected clothing, and Tom Scott gave them food at his restaurant.
The Lions Club, the MWA in Wells and more groups donated money, and the list goes on and on.
“Our love and thanks goes out to everyone—we’re riding on their love right now. That’s what’s keeping us afloat,” Vern said. “Just the short period of time we’ve been homeless, they’ve made it feel like home.”
Family had no insurance
Unfortunately, financial hardship led to a lapse in insurance, so the family has no backup. The James’s do eventually want to rebuild, but until they are able they’re looking to rent in the area. They said they love local people and the Mettawee Community School for the children, two of whom are 7-years-old, as well as a 2 and 4-year-old.
“We had a lot of history there ourselves. The house was perfect because it was so big,” Vern said. The family was also feeding 13 cats and kittens outside the house. Amazingly, firefighters said the one cat that was allowed indoors had survived and jetted out of the house as the blaze was knocked down.
“God watched over us and made sure we all got out,” Emma said.
Ten area departments responded
West Pawlet Fire Chief David Hosley said firefighters initially tried to attack the fully-engulfing fire from inside the house but were driven back outside. Granville police were first on scene, determining that no one was inside. Granville Engine and Hose arrived next and immediately began battling the flames.
“The closet departments are on the pre-plan, and I’ve got full confidence in them,” Hosley said. He said extreme cold was a factor in the blaze but was not a huge problem.
Firefighters did pull water from dry hydrants at the Mettawee Community School and elsewhere. In addition to West Pawlet and Granville Engine and Hose, on scene were the Pawlet Department, Granville Hook and Ladder, Middle Granville, North Granville, Wells, Hebron, Hartford and Rupert, with Dorset standing by in the Pawlet station. Granville EMS was also on scene.
“I’d like to compliment the mutual aid in the area. It’s pretty much second to none. They do a heck of a job,” Hosley said.
Vern said there’s nothing the community isn’t doing to help his family.
“I want to mention everybody because they’ve all reached out to us,” he said, adding how amazing it’s been when people on the street hand him envelopes and gifts.
He said the continued support will help his family get through this tragedy.
“We’re campers, we’re survivors,” he said.