In minutes, the flames spread from the bedspread to the curtains and engulfed the second floor of the house on the bluff.
While her husband tried to put out the fire, Michelle DuBois ran downstairs to search for their 15-year-old cat and to call 911 for the second time. The dispatcher on the phone ordered them out of their Cape Cod-style house and into the pouring rain that had no effect on the rising flames. There still was no sign of the Plymouth Fire Department.
''It seemed like it took forever before they came," DuBois said on Jan. 6, three days after the house was reduced to rubble. The cat is still missing. All of their possessions, including her PhD dissertation, were lost.
DuBois and her husband, Dr. David Gambill, a local radiologist, bought the house on Stage Point Road in 1996. The couple spent four years renovating it, and in 2000 began living there on weekends. Last February, they moved from their Back Bay apartment to Plymouth full time. Even though the closest fire hydrant was almost a mile away, the Manomet Fire Station was only about 2 miles from their new home, so the couple felt safe.
But moments before the fire broke out, started by a candle lighted by DuBois, firefighters at the Manomet station were called to a medical emergency. Crews from more distant stations, less familiar with the area's bumpy, narrow roads, had to respond.
The couple later learned the engines missed the turn to their house. When the firefighters arrived nine minutes after the first 911 call, they had to use about 3,000 feet of hose to pump water from a parking lot because the hydrant was so far away.
''They stayed all night," DuBois said. ''They made a valiant effort."
In Plymouth, where the potential to build in remote locations is tremendous and tempting to those seeking privacy, firefighters are increasingly concerned they will not be able to reach a fire in time.
''When you bought the house, didn't you ever judge the distance from the house to the fire station?" Captain Ed Bradley said he often thinks when people complain about poor response time. ''We don't fall out of the sky."
Gambill and DuBois said they learned about the distances to the fire hydrant and the Manomet station only when their insurance company requested the information. Response times and whether firefighters might have a difficult time putting out a fire at their house were not a priority, Gambill said.
''Like everybody else, unless you're really compulsive or paranoid, you never look at it," he said.
When showing a property to a prospective buyer, real estate agents do not have to disclose, or even know, where the nearest fire station is, its emergency response time, or whether it might be closed.
''Our mandate is to disclose our knowledge about the property . . . how the furnace is fueled . . . [if] there has been dampness in the basement," said Steve Asmond, with Exit TriStar Realty in Plymouth.
In his 10 years as a Middleborough real estate agent, Kyle Belken said, no one has ever asked about fire response times.
''I wouldn't even know how to answer it," said Belken, who works for Debbie Blais Real Estate. ''It's not like I'm sitting on the back of the fire trucks making sure they're getting to fires on time. . . . The concern is with the school system, the recreation, 'Where do I take swimming lessons?' "
But the neighbors of DuBois and Gambill are thinking about it now, according to Susan McNichols, a Manomet Bluffs resident who watched their Stage Point Road house burn.
''We need fire services," she said. ''To cut fire, police, emergency medical services is cutting your throat."
In a blow to the neighborhood just days after the fire, Plymouth Fire Chief James announced his decision to remove firefighting units from the Manomet station for 30 to 45 days, citing budget problems. With only two paramedics on duty at the station, the move would cut back on the need to close down other stations one shift at a time, he explained.
DuBois said her personal loss has opened her eyes to the Fire Department's limited resources.
''We didn't realize that they were not equipped to get in there, or that they close every other night due to funding," she said. ''I thought, 'We're in an OK situation.' "
She and her husband plan to rebuild on the site, but the house won't look the same. ''It would be too spooky," DuBois said.