Ridgefield couple loses 'perfect' home of 25 years in fire: 'Just miraculous that we weren't there'

RIDGEFIELD — When Eliza Shanley looks back on the fire that destroyed her home of 25 years on the night after Christmas, she said she mainly feels grateful — since she said possessions can always be replaced, but people can't. 

"In my life I've had more experiences than things, and experiences don't burn away in a fire," said Shanley, about the blaze that broke out at her home on Shadblow Hill Road. "While I'll miss photographs or mementos that remind me of those experiences ... our life has been shaped by the experiences we've had more than anything else."

On Dec. 26, when Shanley and her husband, James Carone were out of town, a fire broke out in their home — a 1955 modified cape of about 2,400 square feet. It took about 90 minutes to get the fire under control, with about 40 to 50 first responders helping in the effort. No one was at home at the time of the fire, and no one was hurt or needed medical attention in the blaze.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, Ridgefield Fire Chief Jerry Myers said Wednesday. 

"With a major fire like that, there's a lot of digging and sifting. There's a lot of evidence gathering and then stuff has to be analyzed," Myers said. "The fire marshal is working on that but he has not determined the cause yet. It can take several weeks before the investigation is complete."

'A total loss'

Shanley's home was one of many in Ridgefield that lost power during the storm the day before Christmas. Once power was restored Christmas morning, she and her husband headed out to see family in Massachusetts. 

"At about 5:15 the next morning, my husband's cell phone rang and it was the fire department dispatcher. They were trying to find us to tell us what happened," she said.

"Somewhere in the middle of the night or early morning hours, the house was engulfed in flames," she added.

No one was home at the time of the fire.

Shanley added the family was lucky that her mother-in-law, who had been living with them for several months while recovering from hip surgery, had just moved into an assisted living facility on Thanksgiving.

"We all thought, 'this is just miraculous that we weren't there,' she said.

'Covered in fire and ash'

Myers' units arrived on the scene to find fire coming through the roof.

"We got a call around 4:15 in the morning from people down the hill and across the street, who heard a popping noise and possibly saw some smoke," he said. "We started out on assignment to the alarm and the police were nearby and were on scene very quickly. They confirmed that it was a well involved structure fire."

He said they were operating on two engines and then were able to used a fire hydrant at the beginning of the road.

"We had an uninterrupted water supply once we got hooked up to that," he said. "So, that was fortunate for the areas that we were able to save as best we could."

He added the popping sounds were the sounds of combustion.

"As materials burn, the moisture inside heats up and expands and that makes the popping sound and the sound of combustion," he said.

Firefighters were able to stop the fire before it reached the attached garage, so much of the garage is preserved. However, the floors, ceiling and roof collapsed during the fire, he said.

They were assisted by the Georgetown Fire Department.  

"Georgetown sent us a tanker to the scene and they sent us an engine and an ambulance to cover fire headquarters because all of our units were tied up at the fire," he said. "They were providing coverage for the rest of the town for us." The city of Danbury also sent an ambulance at that scene. 

About 40 to 50 first responders helped with the fire, in total.

He said to make the situation worse, it was "bitter cold" out that night.

"Everybody was covered in ice and ash," Myers said. "Our firefighters were outside spraying water on themselves in temperatures below 10 degrees. So as you can imagine, we have to be very careful that they don't get frostbite or hypothermia. Even if that doesn't happen, it makes it a very difficult environment to work around because when we're using water, there's going to be water leaking. The truck tanks will overflow when they get full. Connections between hoses will loosen up and water will spray out."

He added just walking around the scene becomes a hazard because "it's all ice, coupled with the fact that our folks are working outside in this temperature. We have to pay attention to what we're doing and make sure that we're being safe. It's very challenging in that cold environment."

It took about 90 minutes to get the fire under control. There were still "hot spots" for several hours and firefighters had to return to the scene the following day — "trying to ... hit some hidden fire that was below where it had collapsed," he said.

Gratitude

Shanley said she thanks the Ridgefield Fire Department for their quick and efficient response.

"First of all, coming in the middle of the night to put a fire on the night of Christmas at 4:30 in the morning," she said. "Not only that, but as soon as we arrived as a family to the house two days later to look at the damage and sort of comprehend what happened, (two first responders) were there. They stayed with us while we walked around, answered all of our questions, and reassured us that it wasn't anything we did to cause it."

Two days later, Shanley and Carone returned to the home to access the damage.

"I have two grown daughters. We went as family just to sort of register what really happened," said Shanley, who is staying with friends in Maryland.  On Saturday, she said she'll return to Connecticut, to temporarily move into a rental home in Westport for the next few months.

"It was perfect," she said, describing her home.

She said it's her "dream" to be able to rebuild their home, to move back in someday.

"It's gonna be a long haul but we can do it," she said.