A Westminster farmhouse where members of the Twelve Tribes religious sect lived was heavily damaged during an early morning fire Tuesday that firefighters believe was triggered by a wood stove.
“We know it was related to the wood stove or chimney, but the exact cause has not been determined,” Cole Streeter, chief of the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department said Tuesday.
“I talked with one of the residents who said he thought it got started around the back side of the chimney and that there was fire in the attic and smoke coming up through the floor,” Streeter said.
Streeter said the building, known as the Basin Farm, was home to several Twelve Tribe families but he was unable to say how many people actually lived in the structure. Other members of the sect live in smaller buildings at the Westminster site.
“They did not give me a number,” Streeter said. “They’re pretty secretive and they do their own thing, but they’re nice people.” About 40 people live at Basin Farm, according to information on the Twelve Tribes website.
The property, a farm that includes 108 acres, has an appraised value of $628,200 and lists Michael Morgan as its owner, according to the Grand List posted on Westminister’s town website.
A Twelve Tribes person who answered a telephone at the organization’s site in Ithaca, N.Y., said Tuesday afternoon that the group was working on where to move people who were displaced by the fire.
The person, who said his name was Aysh and identified himself as a Twelve Tribes “disciple” said some of the people in Westminster would likely be moved to the sect’s properties in Island Pond and Rutland, while others might end up moving to the Ithaca site.
“We do believe God uses all things for good that happen to those who love him,” Aysh said. “We’re thankful for that, despite the hardships.”
The fire broke out at 7:24 a.m., according to Peter Harrison, a dispatcher for the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department. By mid-morning 75 firefighters from nine departments were at the scene.
Streeter said the near-zero temperatures made fighting the fire difficult.
“Ice is always a problem,” he said. “We had 4-inch lines going ... but you have to keep the line running or it’ll freeze up," he said.
Twelve Tribes was founded in Chattanooga, Tenn., under a different name in the 1970s. It later moved to Island Pond in Vermont and was renamed the Northeast Kingdom Community Church. It now has operations around the world.
The sect was the target of a police raid in Island Pond in 1984, based on suspicions that members were harming children by striking them with reed-like sticks in the course of disciplining them.
Dozens of children from the sect were temporarily taken into custody by the state before a judge later ruled the raid was illegal and released them.
This past September, German police raided two sites belonging to the Twelve Tribes and took 40 children into custody based on similar concerns regarding abuse while children were being disciplined.
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