ORANGE - An unlikely combination - high winds and a bucketful of day-old wood stove ashes - are being blamed for a fast-moving fire that virtually destroyed a single family home early last Wednesday morning at 870 Garden Road, the town's Fire Marshall said.

Raymond and Mary Ellen Holden and their three children were not injured in the 1:42 a.m. blaze even though windblown embers from the ashes had ignited the fire perhaps as much as 20 minutes earlier in the attic of their single story home, Orange Fire Marshall Tim Smith said.

That little piece of good fortune was not lost on Walt Bespuda, Mary Ellen Holden's father, as he surveyed the remains of the home, the freezing air heavy with the smell of charred wood.

"Thank God they made it out okay," said Bespuda, whose home is located near his daughter's on the sprawling 70 acre farm - Cedar Hill Farm - located near the border between Orange and Derby.

"Mary Ellen and the kids came and woke me up when it first started and I was in such a hurry to get out the door and get over there, I started out the door with no shoes on."

Bespuda, who is a longtime member of the town's Inland Wetlands Commission and helped found the Orange Country Fair, praised the efforts of firefighters, neighbors and friends, who rushed to help out his daughter's family in their time of need. As he spoke, neighbors worked in temperatures near zero to clean up the property surrounding the home.

"I couldn't ask for any more help than what we've gotten today," Bespuda said, his voice filled with emotion. "I'm just overwhelmed. People came from Orange, Woodbridge and all over to help us out."

Firefighters arrived at the home within four-and-half minutes of getting called, Smith said. But because the fire had gotten such a head start, the decision was made to adopt a defensive strategy and contain the fire until it could be brought under control, he said.

"Embers from discarded ashes ignited some combustible material - children toys and pieces of wood outside the home," Smith said. "The wind then blew those embers up into air and they ended up in the attic." Though the Holdens had smoke detectors in their home, the alarms did not sound at first because the smoke was confined to the attic, he said. Friends of the Holdens and Bespuda say neighbors and other residents came to help because the two families would have done the same thing for them.

"I've known Mary Ellen since I was as a child and they (the Holdens) are some of the best people you'd ever want to know," said Kimberly McClure of Veterinary Associates of Orange.

"I don't think I'm just speaking for myself when I say that we can do to help them will get done. That's why I live in a small town.

Luther Turmelle can be reached at lturmelle@nhregister.com or at 876-6800.