BOONVILLE — By the time the siren rang at the Boonville Fire Department summoning volunteers Tuesday night, a fire that wafted smoke through downtown was already on its way to claiming two buildings. It was 9:50 p.m. Two historic buildings at the center of the village were engulfed in flames, but the fire went largely unnoticed at first. Despite the best efforts of firefighters from 13 departments from two counties, it spread ultimately destroying five buildings.
Assistant Fire Chief Dean Yauger said, the fire began in the back of one of the buildings, but the smoke didn’t seem to immediately cause concern. Likely because a nearby resident often cooks outdoors with a broiler that produces a lot of smoke, making the sight of it in the streets quite common.
Calls were eventually made to 911 by a person living in one of the buildings who reported smelling the smoke in her home, he said, almost simultaneously with a passerby on the street when the smoke was heavy enough to billow forward onto Main Street.
“It had a head start on us,” Mr. Yauger said.
Fifteen people were safely evacuated by the local and state police, although some pets perished, while 125 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the night keeping the destruction from spreading even further down the block.
“The buildings pancaked when they collapsed and trapped the fire in pockets,” Mr. Yauger said on Wednesday, “So now we’re pulling it all apart to try to get those pockets out.”
Two trucks with their buckets extended held firefighters sending laser-like streams of water into the collapsed buildings’ remains while a track hoe foraged through the wreckage in search of fire that had yet to be subdued.
Freezing weather overnight, wind and snowfall throughout the morning made containing the blaze more challenging.
“We’re hoping to have this completely done and be able to leave before the sub-zero temperatures hit tonight,” Mr. Yauger said, “That is, if mother nature cooperates.”
The loss to downtown and the community caused by the fire is devastating, Mr. Yauger said, and for him, it’s personal.
“It’s Main Street U.S.A. that we’re losing here, and for me it’s a personal loss, too, because my family owned Slim’s for 32 years,” he said.
Slim’s Diner, in addition to The Cut Above Hair Salon, Country Connections and Strands Salon, were among the street-level businesses lost.
Former mayor and owner of the wine and liquor store across the street from the fire, David Leffingwell, said this is more devastating than the 1983 tornado.
“With a tornado, you can salvage some things, but with a fire, there’s no salvage. These families, all they’ve got is memories now,” Mr. Leffingwell said.
Community members, businesses small and large, locally and from as far away as Rome and Utica donated food, drinks, even cell phone chargers, that were assembled by the Boonville Auxiliary led by Barbara Sanford at the fire hall into a place of respite for tired firefighters to rejuvenate.
“The outpouring has been unbelievable and the auxiliary has been there all night for us,” said Mr. Yauger.
The Boonville Elementary school gym was turned into a shelter for people displaced by the fire as well as for residents whose electricity was temporarily turned off by National Grid for safety purposes, Mr. Yauger said.
A GoFundMe account to help the victims of the fire was set up by the “What’s Happening in Boonville, New York” Facebook page on Wednesday and it is over halfway to its goal of $10,000. To donate, go to Boonville Fire 2020 -Boonville is Beautiful
Fire departments in Oneida and Lewis counties working with the Boonville team at the scene included Woodgate, Waitesboro, Remsen, Stittville, Barneveld, Western, Castorland, Constableville, Lowville, Port Leyden, Lyons Falls and Turin.
Additional assistance was supplied by the Oneida County Department of Public Works, Lewis and Oneida Emergency Response Services, the city of Rome, state police, Oneida County Sheriff’s office and the state fire investigations department.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
There have been four significant fires in downtown Boonville since 1963, the last of which was in an apartment building a couple of hundred feet down Main Street from Wednesday’s fire in 2013.