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Four-alarm fire destroys multifamily building on Harvard/Boxborough town line

Flames ripped through the attic and roof of a 24-unit apartment building just across the town line in Boxborough last Wednesday evening in what quickly became a four-alarm inferno. As one of Boxborough’s mutual aid partners, the Harvard Fire Department responded within minutes of the first alarm, sending two engines and a tanker with their crews to the blaze on Swanson Road.

The first alarm sounded around 5:10 p.m., and Harvard received the call at 5:17 p.m. Harvard Fire Chief Rick Sicard was the first chief on the scene and took command until the arrival of Boxborough Chief Paul Fillebrown.

Deputy Chief Chuck Nigzus and Chief Rick Sicard go over a plan to deploy the town’s tanker to assist in a four-alarm blaze that displaced more than 30 residents on Feb. 10 on Swanson Road in Boxborough. (Courtesy photos)

About 30 residents, ranging from toddlers to octogenarians, were evacuated from the building into the snowy parking lot. Though smoke was already spreading through the building, everyone was brought out safely. “And probably five or 10 minutes after the evacuation, we had a collapse of the roof area,” Fillebrown later told the online publication Fire Engineering.

Because the fire started around dinner time, Fillebrown told the Press, many residents ignored the smoke alarms, assuming they had been triggered by burned food. So firefighters and police went door to door in the building, warning people to leave.

Eleven Harvard firefighters were at the scene, with Engines 1 and 4 and the tanker, Lt. Andrew Perry said. Three or four other firefighters remained on call at the Harvard station.

The Harvard crew at the fire had the crucial responsibility of water supply. Boxborough, like Harvard, relies on fire ponds rather than hydrants. So Harvard firefighters laid a 3,000-foot hose line to bring water to the scene directly from a fire pond.

Harvard crew members also deployed their two 4,000-gallon drop bags (huge vinyl tubs supported by metal frames). Then tankers from several towns shuttled water from Boxborough fire ponds to fill and refill the massive tubs every few minutes as ladder trucks poured water on the fire.

Harvard firefighters were able to leave the scene by about 11:30 p.m., but a team from Boxborough remained on watch all night because hot spots were still smoldering within the walls. Fillebrown said the fire was not fully extinguished until about 2 p.m. Thursday.

Harvard resident Steve Victorson saw the fire from his business, Swymfit, just across the road. He said he was struck by how many fire departments were present, including Carlisle, Westford, Devens, and Acton, as well as Harvard and Boxborough. All together, more than a dozen departments provided mutual aid, according to the Boxborough Fire Department’s Facebook page.

“I was just observing the hard work of the fire departments,” Victorson said. “It was really well organized, and they were working very well together.”

Early reports said several pets were lost in the fire, but Fillebrown said he believed all the pets had been saved, except possibly a fish. One firefighter was seen carrying a cat from the building after the blaze was under control. The chief said cats, dogs, and birds were all returned to their owners.

More than a dozen fire departments provided mutual aid for the four-alarm blaze on Swanson Road in Boxborough. (Courtesy photo)

The fire was mostly contained to the fourth floor of the building, but lower floors suffered extensive water and smoke damage. According to news reports, parts of the building are no longer structurally sound.

The state fire marshal’s office has concluded the cause of the fire is undetermined but not suspicious. The blaze began in the attic, an area now too damaged to inspect.

Among the groups helping those who lost their home and all their possessions in the fire are the Boxborough United Church of Christ, the Acton-Boxborough United Way, and Household Goods.

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