A false alarm from a carbon-monoxide detector triggered a chain reaction response in Southold on Saturday morning, leading the local fire chief to a nearby unoccupied waterfront home that was fully engulfed in flames.
James Rich, chief of the Southold Fire Department, was awakened from sleep at 4:46 a.m. when a call came in for possible carbon-monoxide detection at a home on Anderson Drive.
Rich said he and a police officer raced to wake the occupants and tested the home — but no carbon monoxide was present. While they were inside, the electricity unexpectedly went out, he said. When Rich went outside to check the exterior of the home for fire, he noticed what appeared to be “snow” falling all around him, he said.
“I quickly realized it wasn’t snow — it was ash. But it wasn’t coming from the house or any of the neighbors’ homes next to us,” Rich told Newsday. “That’s when I started to smell the smoke. I followed the wind and ran up and over a hill and saw it — the red glow. The entire house was on fire, flames everywhere.”
Sleeping neighbors didn’t notice the house aflame on nearby Hyatt Road, Rich said, and there was no internal system installed to trigger an emergency response.
Rich said he quickly called for the rest of the fire department to respond, as full crews aren’t dispatched for carbon monoxide calls and weren’t nearby.
The fire damage was already so heavy by the time Rich arrived, he couldn’t tell how many stories the home was. The wooden frame of the older structure, believed to have been built in the 1940s, helped accelerate the burn, he said. The home had recently been purchased, Rich said, and the owners, who live elsewhere, had been planning renovations.
About 30 to 40 firefighters from the Southold and Cutchogue fire departments battled the blaze completely from an exterior attack, Rich said. The Greenport Fire Department was called to cover the Southold fire station for backup assistance.
“The fire had a pretty good head start on us,” Rich said.
The remote location of the house, in a neighborhood of private roads with wells that are spaced far apart, it became “a very difficult situation” to fight the fire, Rich said. Water had to be brought in with a tanker, he said.
The house collapsed under the heft of the fire, Rich said, and eventually burned itself out within about an hour from its discovery.
“The firefighters we had performed flawlessly, but we had a lot of difficulty with it,” Rich said. “There was little we could do to save this house by the time we found it. There are very nice residences to the left and right, so my first concern was the safety of those two houses because this one was already so far gone.”
Photos from the scene show piles of rubble where the house once stood, with a brick chimney the only remaining part left standing. No firefighters were injured, Rich said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to Rich. While there’s no proof, Rich said he believes the fire may have triggered a phone line or a surge in the electricity in the neighborhood, causing the nearby home’s carbon-monoxide detector to go off.
“It was kind of ironic the way it happened. I got woken up and thought I was going to a carbon monoxide call. I was worried about the safety of those people. When we arrived there were cars in the driveway and lights on in the house. I thought we were going to walk in there and find them dead,” Rich said.
“But then we turn around and this whole house was just burning in the middle of the night. Burned right to the ground.”
With Randee Daddona