By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — WEST NEWBURY — One day after a devastating fire ravaged their family home, all the Renaus could do yesterday was sift through the ice-encased, charred remains of the trappings of their lives, attempting to salvage whatever they could.
Their 11 River Road house — a sprawling, nine-room contemporary home on 5-plus acres overlooking the Merrimack River — went up in flames during the height of the blizzard late Friday night.
Anthony and Carolyn Renau and their two dogs escaped uninjured — but suffered immense loss in the intense fire that brought more than 30 firefighters from across the region to the scene and took hours to extinguish.
“The house is done,” Carolyn Renau said yesterday before touring the property with insurance adjusters. “One whole section of the house is absolutely obliterated.”
Renau said the fire is believed to have started from a wood stove insert in a fireplace on the first floor of the 4,700-square-foot home.
She said the family had been experiencing problems with their heating system and had technicians working on the problem in the last week or two. But as the blizzard struck, they were without a working heating system and turned to the wood stove insert, typically used primarily in conjunction with their heat, as their main source of warmth.
On Friday night, Carolyn Renau loaded the wood stove before heading off to bed. A couple small fan blower heaters bought a week or so before were circulating to spread the heat through the house.
About a half-hour later, around 11:45 p.m., Renau heard a noise coming from the wood stove and went to check.
“I saw the fire was just out of control in the insert,” she said.
Renau quickly scrambled to get her husband, who had recently undergone hip surgery, as well as Scout and Zoe, her Lab and golden retriever, out the door and call the fire department. The couple’s 25-year-old son, Tom, who lives with them, was out plowing and not home when the fire started.
White-out conditions and fierce winds from the storm led to frozen hoses and ladders, which only made battling the blaze more problematic, fire Chief Scott Berkenbush said Saturday afternoon.
“It was fully involved when we got there,” Berkenbush said of the house. “It took hours to knock it down. It was up in the roof and with the wind and everything, it just traveled.”
From the outset, crews had to clear the 1/4-mile driveway of 2 feet of snow before they could even get to the house.
Then, the process of getting water to the house in the middle of the blizzard required some complex work. Pumps had to be used to extend hoses from hydrants on River Road and nearby Bridge Street to the scene, Berkenbush said.
“Three pumps were in line to get the water to the fire. One of them froze up and we had to take that out of the line and put another one in,” he said. “And everything froze up. All the hoses we had out, our ladders and everything were frozen.”
West Newbury called on the assistance of numerous area fire departments, including Groveland, Newburyport, Byfield, Newbury, Georgetown, Amesbury and Merrimac, and the chief and his team were still at the scene Saturday afternoon, more than 14 hours after the call came in. No firefighters or emergency personnel reported injuries at the scene, Berkenbush said.
Despite the outcome, Carolyn Renau had only praise for the efforts of the firefighters.
“They were unbelievable. They were here all night into the next day,” she said. “The outcome was not good, but I can’t thank them enough. They did all they could.”
Berkenbush said this isn’t the first fire he’s battled in a blizzard. He responded to a structure fire in Byfield during the Blizzard of 1978.
“It’s unfortunate, but it seems to happen,” Berkenbush said.
While West Newbury is a call fire department, given that past history with storm fires, Berkenbush took measures to staff the town’s fire station Friday night. He knew that if a fire broke out, his call firefighters would have trouble getting to the station and then responding to the scene in the storm if they weren’t already at headquarters. In hindsight, his advance planning proved a smart call.The Renaus’ alarm system alerted the fire department even before the couple called for help.
Situated down a private driveway off River Road, the house was built in 1991, according to town records. The Renaus, who have lived in West Newbury since 1989, bought the property in 2007 from Clifford Irons for $867,500. Anthony Renau is a chief scientific technology officer with Applied Materials Inc. in Gloucester. Carolyn Renau is a clinical social worker with the Timberlane Regional School District in southern New Hampshire.
The Renaus are currently staying with a neighbor, who has invited them to stay as long they need to. While the couple will begin seeking rental property in the coming days, Carolyn Renau said she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and assistance from the community.
“We’ve gotten more offers from people. People have just been amazing, saying our house is your house, offering meals,” she said. “People are really opening up their hearts.”
Renau said it will take some time for her family to assess the damage and decide their next step. While the garage, which housed two cars, and another building on the property, which also contained vehicles, were not destroyed, the Renaus as of yesterday morning had yet to see if the vehicles were still operational. An inground swimming pool and outbuilding also were not damaged.
While Renau agreed material objects are replaceable, the loss of personal possessions, like photographs, will be harder to accept. While still trying to sort out the enormity of the cleanup and road ahead, Renau was fairly certain of one thing. Her family likely would be returning to a home by the Merrimack River someday.
“We probably will rebuild,” she said.