A Montclair couple well-known for their environmental activism escaped injury when their Gordonhurst Avenue house caught fire Wednesday evening.

Pat Kenschaft and Fred Chichester were at home when the fire began on the third floor.

Montclair Deputy Fire Chief Robert Duncan said a neighbor called 911 at about 5:18 p.m. after seeing fire and smoke coming from the house, and was concerned that its two residents could still be inside. Fire crews and police arrived and found heavy fire and smoke coming from the third floor.

Firefighters and police officers entered the house and helped the two get out, before firefighters went to the third floor. Duncan didn’t identify Kenschaft and Chichester by name in a statement to media, but other community members close to them said they were the residents.  

The third floor sustained heavy fire and smoke damage, while the lower floors sustained smoke and water damage. The cause of the fire is under investigation, Duncan said. 

Fire crews from Clifton, Bloomfield and West Orange also responded to the fire, while crews from Cedar Grove, Orange and Verona provided coverage for the rest of Montclair. The last units left the house at 8:02 p.m.

Gray Russell, the township’s sustainability officer, said in a Facebook posting that the couple was safe, and that they were staying with neighbors. 

“There’s a lot of people, a lot of environmentalists, a lot of us greenies, as I like to call them, who are very concerned about them, and are glad they are safe,” Russell later told Montclair Local.

Jose German Gomez, a friend of the couple who is also the chair of the Northeast Earth Coalition, said, “They are grateful for the overwhelming demonstration of solidarity that they have received, also grateful for the prayers.”

The fire at Pat Kenschaft and Fred Chichester's home started in the third floor. (MONTCLAIR FIRE DEPARTMENT)
The fire at Pat Kenschaft and Fred Chichester's home started in the third floor. (MONTCLAIR FIRE DEPARTMENT)

Kenschaft has been one of the most vocal advocates for restrictions on leaf blowers, and wrote numerous letters to Montclair Local on the subject. She is a former math professor at Montclair State University and has been the president of the Cornucopia Network of New Jersey. 

The family’s organic vegetable garden has often been opened up for visitors on weekends

Councilman Peter Yacobellis told Montclair Local that he had heard about the fire and would support any efforts to help the family. 

Yacobellis said the outpouring of support he’d seen so far for Kenschaft and Chichester was a testament to their reputation in the community, and to the town’s generosity.

“It’s Montclair, right? It’s what we do,” he said.

He added that Montclair had to remember that in all aspects, whether it was town business, school issues or other matters, it was a village.

“To me, it’s a village coming together to help a family member,” Yacobellis said.