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When fire strikes, many turn out to help islander
By NATALIE MARTIN
After a local farmer’s barn burned to the ground in a large fire that also destroyed thousands of dollars of tools and equipment, islanders turned out in droves to help the longtime Vashon man handle the scene left behind.
Last week, George Singer stood in the charred remains of what was a large, two-story barn at his farm in picturesque Paradise Valley. On the evening of Nov. 22, a fast-burning fire tore through the barn, fueled by 20 tons of hay stored inside. By the time crews from Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) arrived, the structure was completely engulfed in flames and part of the roof had already caved in.
“If they would have been at the head of the hill when the call came in, they couldn’t have saved it,” Singer said.
Since then, however, Singer, well-known as the head of Singer Farm and well-loved in the horse community and beyond, has been touched by what he called the generous island community. Those who know the longtime islander, as well as some who don’t, have shown up by the dozens to help him clean up and sort through the mess — coming to designated work parties and just stopping by to lend a hand.
“It was really shocking, and it’s hard to see that kind of loss,” said Sarah George, a friend of Singer who has helped organize the cleanup effort. “I would crumble for all of the things he lost.”
In all, Singer, who grew up on the farm and now lives there with his wife Marilyn, lost nearly the entire 40-by-60-foot barn, the hay that was to feed his cows and horses over the winter, as well as a car, a tractor and about $150,000 worth of tools.
More significantly, Singer lost the centerpiece of the 40-acre farm: a 40-by-60 metal clad structure his father built in the mid-1940s and that he recently upgraded by adding a floor.
The barn was the place he began each work day, Singer said, and a place that stored decades of tools he and his family accumulated, including carpentry tools, equipment he used on the farm and custom tools he manufactured years ago to meet his needs. He lost a cider press built in the 1930s or 40s that he called “the best one I ever had” and that his family still used to press apples each fall.
“It takes a while to sink in. … Everything I had was here,” he said. “Some of the tools I had they don’t even make anymore,” he said.
While Singer is retired, he still maintains Singer Farm, located on Singer Road, which was named after his family. He keeps about a dozen head of cattle and boards several horses, and proceeds from the farm have helped pay for another parcel he recently added.
George, who boards her horse at Singer Farm and calls Singer a “formative person” in many people’s lives, said the large barn had become a gathering place of sorts. Those who know Singer often did work there, sometimes people stopped by to socialize and a neighbor held a weekly ping pong night there.
“There were so many things that happened there. It was really kind of this hub,” she said.
On the evening of the fire, a friend of Singer was working on his bicycle in the barn when he heard noise coming from the second floor, where the hay was stored. By the time the man went upstairs to investigate, the hay stored upstairs was already ablaze.
George Brown, assistant chief at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, said that when crews arrived they knew the fire wouldn’t be easily put out and focused on controlling the blaze. They prevented it from spreading to a newer lean-to attached to the barn as well as a nearby home.
While the fire was under control by about 11 p.m., the hay smoldered through the night and into the morning, until VIFR brought an excavator to scoop out smoldering hay, which crews then doused.
“With all that hay, it was unsafe for us to put people inside to start putting it out,” Brown said.
It’s unknown what caused the fire — an investigator who came out the night of the incident and visited the site later as well said there wasn’t enough evidence left to pinpoint an exact cause, Brown said.
It’s possible the blaze started by spontaneous combustion, a phenomenon that’s been known to happen with stored hay. There was also an electrical panel and stovepipe near the area the flames started, either of which could have ignited the fire, Brown said.
As for Singer, he said he planned to eventually rebuild the barn, though it will be costly. It looks as though insurance will only cover a portion of his losses, he said.
“As soon as you get over the hill, you have to climb back up again,” he said.
The day after the fire, 15 to 20 people went to Singer’s property to help him clear out debris and sort through the rubble. Islanders continued to spread the word, and the day after Thanksgiving, a more organized work party formed, and more than 40 people continued the job of clearing the scene, taking an inventory of items pulled from the rubble for insurance purposes, organizing scraps for recycling and cleaning out a lean-to that will serve as a temporary work and storage space. Piles of charred hay will be used as compost on an adjacent property where the land trust has a conservation project.
Photos from the work parties show islanders of all ages dirty, even ash-covered, but smiling.
“The least we can do is clean it up and get it out of there, so it’s easier to figure out what to do next,” George said. “Sometimes action feels better than moping.”
Singer said he plans to eventually rebuild his barn, but he emphasized he’s not looking for donations.
“We’re not destitute,” he said. “There are people out there in need. This is stuff.”
George said she believes there will be more opportunities to help, and she’s already talked with some people about donating their old and unused tools to help Singer begin to rebuild his collection.
“He said that would be great,” she said. “The older the better.”