August of 1987 was a very warm and humid month. Westerly was experiencing a busy summer Saturday on August 15, 1987. Beaches were full and bustling with beachgoers as tourists flocked to beat the summer heat. A warm breeze was blowing up the Pawcatuck River and traffic was moderate for a mid afternoon in the downtown area. At around 3:20 pm a Westerly Ambulance was returning to their headquarters on Chestnut St via Main St when they spotted a fire at the vacant Hanley-Williams Lumber yard. Box 1123 for Main and Union St was transmitted from the fire station at 3:21pm for what would become one of Westerly's more spectacular fires. The old lumber yard was comprised of about 5 buildings with 3 interconnected. The fire started in one of the buildings closet to the river. Heavy black smoke was spewing from that area and very quickly a mass of flames shot up and out of the building.
Engine 3 was the first Westerly unit to respond arriving to find heavy smoke and flames. Engine 3 laid a 4 inch supply line down the first driveway and stopped in front of one lumber sheds. Engine 1 arrived one minute later connecting to the 4 inch supply line. Multiple lines were stretched and water began to flow onto the fire. The breeze began to pick up and fed the flames quickly spreading it to the other buildings. First Assistant Chief Nick Stenhouse was responding from his boat at the Westerly Yacht Club and could see the column of smoke billowing. As he heard the initial report given by Engine 3 he radioed the dispatcher at the station to request two pumpers from Pawcatuck. Westerly' s ladder truck and Engine 2 responded. Engine 2 laid two 2 1/2 inch lines from the hydrant on Main St near Commerce St. About this time Pawcatuck Engine 1 arrived. Engine 2 returned and pumped the hydrant. Pawcatuck Engine 2 laid two 3 inch lines from the hydrant in front of the Main St Shopping Center to the front of the building. The rapid spread of the fire required that Engines 3 and 1 be moved as they were endangered by the intense heat at which time they lost water due to the 4 inch hose burning. Reserve Engine 1 (1953 Seagrave) was brought to the scene and drafted water from the river supplying Engines 3 and 1. Fire conditions intensified so rapidly that a firestorm was created. A firestorm looks likes a tornado of flames. The heat and humidity also took a toll on the almost 100 firefighters, many requiring oxygen. Overhead electric lines burned through causing additional hazards for fire crews. Narragansett Electric took over an hour to reach the scene.
As the fire consumed the four buildings in the back the front building began to burn. Firefighters concentrated on stopping the fire in this building as the others were now just burning piles of rubble. At 3:55 pm one of the many embers generated by the rapid destruction of the sheds and wood shop caused the synagogue on Union St to catch fire around its front door. Pawcatuck Engine 3 was dispatched to the synagogue and extinguished the small fire. Asst. Chief Stenhouse called for two pumpers from Watch Hill to respond with one to the scene and one to cover the Westerly station. The location of the fire presented a severe traffic problem. Westerly Police Chief Mark Champlin called in 18 off duty police officers to assist with traffic. All traffic was rerouted via Broad St using two way traffic. Main St was shut down from School St. to Broad St. and Union St was also shutdown. Police estimated about 1000 spectators came to watch the fire fighting efforts.
The fire was declared under control at 4:30pm and wet down continued until 8:00pm. On Sunday an engine returned to continue wet down of the ruins. Investigators from the Rhode Island Fire Marshal's office determined the fire was arson. Today the state boat launch is now located on the land the Hanley-Williams lumber yard occupied. Ironically, Hanley-Williams Lumber had moved to a new facility on Oak St. just several months prior to the fire at the old yard.