Highlands and Cashiers fire departments responded to a myriad of calls throughout the Christmas holiday, but freezing temperatures at -6 degrees made battling two structure fires especially difficult.
The first call was made just before midnight on Dec. 23 of a structure fire on Mountain Moorings Drive near Mirror Lake. The building was an apartment complex with multiple units connected like townhomes.
Isaac Plouse lives in the adjacent unit and said he smelled plastic burning and went to investigate.
“I went looking for the source and outside in front of my neighbor’s was glowing orange with smoke pouring out of the house,” he said. “People started panicking and I thought, I got to stay calm or we’re going to lose this.”
Plouse called 911 and Highlands Police Sgt. Thomas Parker and Master Officer John Cherry were the first to arrive at the scene. Plouse said the first couple of minutes were terrifying.
“We saw my neighbor’s car out front and we just weren’t sure if she was in there or not, and that was the scariest feeling,” said Plouse. “We were piling up fire extinguishers and grabbing pitchers of water, anything we could get our hands on.”
Parker, Cherry, and Plouse assumed the worst and began using fire extinguishers and pots of water through a window in an attempt to slow the blaze.
Minutes later, officers received confirmation from the building manager that the tenant was out of town for the holidays. That threat was alleviated, but there was still a burning unit in the middle of an apartment building with no signs of slowing down.
Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department and Highlands Fire & Rescue arrived minutes later.
HFR Chief Ryan Gearhart said cold weather causes several issues when battling a blaze.
“It was -6 when Cashiers trucks got on scene with the wind blowing,” said Gearhart. “Not sure of the wind chill. Low temperatures just bring a whole different dimension to fire fighting. Obviously, everything freezes. Hoses freeze up, pumps can freeze up if they are not being used, wet gear freezes making it harder on the firefighter wearing it. ”
Gearhart said the efforts of Parks, Cherry, and Plouse made all the difference.
“The police department being on scene using extinguishers and the valiant efforts of the neighbors throwing water from buckets into the laundry room onto the fire kept the whole place from going up, I feel certain.” said Gearhart. “To be honest, that is probably one of the best saves I have ever seen in 24 years of firefighting. There is a lot of smoke and water damage but no structural damage that I could see. A great job done by all involved.”
The second call was to a house fire on Mountain Brookings Way off Turtle Pond Road on Dec. 24, which then rekindled Christmas Day. The home was a complete loss, but the family of five and two dogs were able to make it out of the house uninjured.
A friend of the victims said the family went to sleep on Christmas Eve and woke up to the smell of smoke. The parents immediately got all of the children and pets to safety but could not save their home. In the aftermath, they lost savings, job equipment, vehicles, and all their physical possessions.
The community has rallied to help, to donate via venmo send to @Alejandra-Tentle, or visit a GoFundMe page that has also been set up HERE.
Oldest sibling of the family, Lety Contreras, said the support from the community has been incredible.
“We’re thankful for the outpouring support and prayers we’ve received,” said Contraras. “Thank you to each and every donor, we are speechless. We have received so much love from the community and local businesses. In the future we hope to be able to give back just as much as we have been given.”
CGFD Chief Randy Dillard said the department responded to 38 calls between Dec. 23-27, including the fire on Mountain Brookings Way in Highlands.
“We have had two house fires, and helped Highlands with two also,” said Dillard on social media. “At -6 degrees and 40 mph winds it was tough. We have a number of buildings with major water damage with some having the power cut off. Besides the heartache of seeing people lose everything on Christmas, we have had no injuries. I am proud of all our firefighters who never complain. Thank you to EMS for always keeping a check on our crew. Thanks to all the great help from our mutual aid. Thanks to our new Sherriff Doug Farmer and his deputies for the help on the calls. The real heroes are the power company crews who worked tirelessly to get the power back on. We live in a great community. It is a true honor to serve in any weather.”
In addition to structure fires, freezing temperatures, and bursting pipes; many in Cashiers were without power over the holiday weekend. In response, Glenville Cashiers Rescue Squad set up an emergency warming station on Christmas Eve to help.