Even as thick smoke from a house fire at 212 S. Hillsborough Ave. fattened up already gray clouds on a mild and gusty Wednesday, silver linings revealed themselves throughout the morning.
At around 10 a.m., Walson Williams, a Public Works employee with the Town of Hillsborough, was working on Nash Street when he noticed smoke rising from the backyard of the house that faces Hillsborough Ave.
Williams, who with his co-worker was doing rounds of pulling trash cans for disabled residents on Nash Street, knew a few of the homeowners near where the smoke was coming from were older, and might need assistance if they were in danger.
“With the smoke being black, I knew it wasn't leaves, so when I went over to the house, I called out and there was no answer,” Williams said. “I walked around and opened the back gate. I saw that the back porch was on fire. I called 911.”
Williams said he could hear the fire detectors going off inside the house. “I tried to make sure that no one was home and the fire started spreading really quickly. I told the 911 dispatch that the fire was starting to move toward the actual home. I tried to alert the neighbors as well,” he said.
Williams stayed at the scene until the fire department arrived. And then he went back to work.
Minutes later, the quiet, narrow neighborhood street was bombarded with sirens, flashing lights, and fire trucks spreading onto roadsides. Neighbors watched the choreography of firefighters from four nearby fire departments maneuver to assess the fire.
Firefighters from Orange Rural Fire, Eno River Fire, Efland Fire, and New Hope Volunteer Fire answered the call.
Orange Rural Fire Chief Jeff Cabe said the first and most important step is to get out anyone who is inside. “We got word that one person lived in the house and that they had a pet,” Cabe said. “Fortunately, no one was in the house, and it appears she doesn’t have a pet.”
The home’s owner, Daly Jessup, had left her house to run an errand earlier in the morning. Jessup has lived in the home, known as the Old Depot House, for five years. It is the oldest house on the street, dating to 1857. The area of the house that received the most fire damage is an addition that was built in the last couple of decades.
“That the fire happened at the back of the house is fortunate,” Fire Chief Cabe continued. “Even though all the (roofline) angles and pitches can be tough to deal with, it’s better that it happened in the newer area. When we first got the call, we were worried the fire would be in the historic part of the house. Those materials can’t be replaced. It’s important to preserve these historic buildings.”
The cause of the fire had not been determined.
Chief Cabe said when crews arrive on a scene like this one, they conduct an initial search for occupants inside the house. “Generally, we walk through every room, looking for anyone who might be laying on the floor, or something like that.”
Once the first search is done, the firefighters will combat the fire to gain better control of the situation. When that’s achieved, a second, more detailed search of the building will be done. “That’s when we look under and behind things,” Cabe said. “Sometimes kids, when they’re scared, will crawl under a bed.”
Candice Cobb, who lives next door to the Old Depot House, said she didn’t realize there was a fire until she received a call from another neighbor. “She said ‘Run and look out your back porch,’” Cobb said. “The wind was blowing away from our house, so we didn’t smell smoke. We quickly ran, and some of the other neighbors had established that no one was home. They said her car wasn’t in the driveway.”
Cobb said she messaged the homeowner’s son, Tucker, who lives in Hillsborough, to tell him his mother’s home was on fire.
Tucker Jessup said another neighbor called him to tell him about the fire at his mother’s house. Jessup said he drove to the house as quickly as he could, and was relieved to see she wasn’t home or in danger.
His mother, Daly, was thankful for the quick action of the Town of Hillsborough employee, the fire departments, and for the concern of her neighbors. “I have such nice neighbors,” she said. “It’s really an extraordinary neighborhood.”
Jessup was told by Fire Chief Cabe that she would not be able to stay in the home because the power had been shut off and the building would need to be inspected. Chief Cabe said he would alert the Red Cross if Jessup needed a place to stay temporarily, but she said she would stay with her son.
On a side note, this isn’t the first time this year that Walson Williams’ quick thinking helped avert what could have been a more disastrous fire. In January, during training on a trash truck, Williams noticed a kerosene heater that had been thrown away, had caught on fire in the hopper of the truck. Training he had received at his previous job prepared him for how to handle the situation.
Williams insists what he did — on both occasions — was no big deal. “Honestly, I just try to treat people the way I want to be treated, you know? I looked at it as if it was my mom's house. I would want someone to make sure she wasn't inside,” he said. “No big deal.”