MOFFAT – Across the street from the fire station, a blaze destroyed an entire block in the rural town of Moffat Tuesday afternoon.

Bill Vestal, a juggler and 27-year resident, watched as the flames gutted his home and craft factory, feet in front of Moffat Fire Department.

Moffat, a town of less than 200 residents, is 17 miles northwest of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and located in Saguache County.

Firefighters from around the region, including Baca and Saguache Fire District units, Mosca-Hooper Volunteer Fire Department, and state firefighters, helped in the battle that left parts of the tiny town still smoking Wednesday, said Sgt. John Huffman, a spokesman for the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office.

A day later, small flames licked out from the bow of a canoe buried in inches of ash. Behind it, a charred blue pickup truck, a singed wool hat atop smoldering planks and several piles of melted tin littered across the plot. Smoke filled the hazy sky above the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Without hydrants in town, tenders hauled to thousands of gallons of water to the scene. Because of the blaze, trucks were not able to get to the closest well to fill up, a senior dispatcher at the Sheriff’s Office said. Instead, they had to travel to a well near Moffat Consolidated School, located across the highway and one located near the north side of town, she said.  

Four structures were lost in the blaze, Huffman said. No injuries were reported.

Vestal said no one was inside the buildings on either side of his house. The family living to the left was out of town when the fire erupted. An apartment to the right was unoccupied, he said.

Behind Vestal’s home, the town’s former telephone exchange was burned to the ground.

“There’s a fire station across the street. I don’t know about you, but I never had any fears about (a fire),” Vestal said, standing in front of the rubble. “I got a wake-up call last night.”

Vestal recalled hearing his blue heeler mixes, Dakota and King barking on deck late Tuesday and his friend, Toby Jones, yelling about flames on the northeast corner of the greenhouse, attached to his home. Vestal grabbed a hose from his house, while his friend called 911.

He said was in front of his house, screaming for water, when his propane tank exploded, propelling it into the sky toward the mountains. A 6-foot shell of tank landed in a field 800 feet northwest of his house.

Jones, who lived with Vestal and his wife, said he was smoking on the deck when the first saw 40-foot flames burning along the rafters of the greenhouse, he said. He chased the dogs out of the house moments before the propane tank exploded, causing flames to swallow the entire home.

About seven minutes into his 11-minute phone call with a 911 dispatcher, a fire truck from the Moffat Fire Department arrived , he said. But by then, it was too late, he said. The Sheriff’s Office could not confirm what time the first trucks arrived.

“(The fire) was super quick. The firefighters weren’t quick enough,” Jones said. “They would have had to have a hose from the building within 30 seconds.”

Jones said he watched Vestal grab the hose from the fire truck, with firefighters standing nearby, and start blasting water onto his home.

“They just stood there. Bill ran back there and grabbed the hose and started fighting the fire,” Jones said.

Vestal called the fire fighters’ equipment “inadequate.”

“They should have been in top shape, right there, ready to respond, and it didn’t happen. So I don’t know what took place and why. I was emotionally charged up, so I was saying, ‘Where’s the water? Where’s the water?’ and I think they just needed updated equipment or better training for the people,” Vestal said.

Vestal’s black cat, Bubba and its kittens all died in the fire, Vestal said. As of Wednesday afternoon, he hadn’t seen the dogs.

Hours before the fire, Jones said he smelled trash and leaves burning but couldn’t find where it was coming from. About a dozen firefighters walked through the rubble Wednesday afternoon to investigate the cause.

Fire trucks pulled away around 2 p.m., flames still visible among the piles of debris.

Also lost in the blaze was Vestal’s craft factory, which he used for the last two decades to build "Crystal Stix," a type of juggling baton. He and his wife, both semi-famous among the Renaissance Faire goers nationwide, traveled the country selling their crafts and performing, he said.

"It's a big loss for us," he said, explaining that he didn't have insurance on his home.

He and his wife typically lived in Moffat for a few months of the year before hitting the road. Before the fire destroyed his factory, including cutting machines and tons of raw material, he sent out a large shipment of batons. He was working on more shipments – fall is peak Renaissance Fair season.

“We’ve always been on the road, so we never really got connected to the local people much,” Vestal said. Though in the past, he and his wife hired local people to help build batons and donated juggling sets to the town’s middle school.

Though tight-knit, the farming community is rapidly changing with an influx of people moving to the town to start hemp and marijuana businesses, he said.

When asked what’s next, Vestal paused. He and his wife might rebuild or possibly relocate to Florida to their other property.

Or, he might grab his juggling sticks and traverse India.

“I’m a juggler. And I can entertain people rather dramatically.”

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Twitter: @oliviaprentzel

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