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Fire destroys cabin of New Hampshire man forced out of woods

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Hermit cabin fire

In this photo provided by the Canterbury (New Hampshire) Fire Department, smoke rises Wednesday from the burnt remains of a cabin inhabited by 81-year-old David Lidstone, who for 27 years lived in the woods of New Hampshire along the Merrimack River in the once small, solar-paneled cabin. The New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's Office has opened an investigation into the fire.

CANTERBURY, N.H. (AP) — An off-the-grid New Hampshire hermit known to locals as “River Dave” whose cabin burned down on wooded property where he was squatting for 27 years has been inundated with offers from as far away as California for a new place to live.

David Lidstone, 81, lived in the woods along the Merrimack River in the town of Canterbury. He was jailed on July 15 on a civil contempt sanction and was told he'd be released if he agreed to leave the cabin. The property owner, Leonard Giles, 86, of South Burlington, Vermont, wants Lidstone off the property.

Fire destroyed the cabin on Wednesday afternoon, the same day Lidstone appeared in court to defend himself. He was released Thursday from the Merrimack County Jail, after a judge ruled that he would have less incentive to return to “this particular place in the woods” now that the cabin had burned down. His whereabouts were unknown.

The state fire marshal's office said it is investigating the blaze, but deferred questions to the Canterbury Fire Department. Lt. Dave Nelson of Canterbury Fire said he expects the investigation to take a few days and there were no updates available about its cause on Thursday.

“We just had the fire yesterday, it takes a while,” Nelson said.

Lidstone, who is originally from Maine, lived on a woodlot located a few miles from Interstate 93 north of the state's capitol city of Concord. He told a judge during a Wednesday court appearance that he had no desire to comply with the order to leave the cabin. Most of his possessions were removed from it before the fire.

Lidstone's off-the-grid lifestyle has made him a folk hero in northern New England, and news of the cabin fire led to sadness and empathy among his supporters. Horace Clark, a cousin of Lidstone's who lives in Vermont, said the fire was "both sad and sick."

Hermit Evicted

This undated photo provided by Jodie Gedeon shows David Lidstone, 81, who for nearly three decades lived in the woods of Canterbury, N.H., along the Merrimack River in a shack, growing his own food and cutting his firewood.

The wooden, two-level A-frame cabin had a small, cluttered kitchen with pots hanging from the ceiling, some appliances, and curtains on the windows. His porch had a footstool with a base made of stacked beer cans. He converted a wood stove into a beehive. He attached lights, a mirror and a pulley for a clothesline to logs supporting the cabin. There were piles of firewood.

Nearby was a gravel path leading to vegetable garden plots outlined by logs and some berry bushes. Lidstone got his water from a stream.

In court, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman agreed that Lidstone wasn't hurting anyone, but said the law was clearly on the landowner's side.

"You're doing your own thing in the 'Live Free or Die' state, so there's a lot of sympathy to you for that," he said. "But there's a lot of weight on the other side of the balance sheet, and not just about what the (landowner) wants to do with the land, but the weight I feel to uphold the judgment of the court and the rule of law."

Jodie Gedeon, an avid kayaker who befriended Lidstone about 20 years ago, had been working with other supporters to help him, including organizing a petition drive and collecting money to cover property taxes.

"I'm devastated," she said when she learned about the fire.

"He's just a really, really, big caring guy, and just chooses to live off the grid," she said in an interview last week. "It really is about humanity, it really is about compassion, empathy ... he's not hurting anybody."

The woodlot Lidstone called home was just a few miles away from Interstate 93. But it was hidden by the trees, on 73 acres that's been used for timber harvests. The property has been owned by the same family since 1963.

The owner of the land had been seeking to tear down the cabin before the fire.

Lidstone has claimed that years ago, the owner gave his word — but nothing in writing — allowing him to live there.

Property owner Leonard Giles, 86, of South Burlington, Vermont, didn't even know Lidstone was there until the town administrator found out in 2015 and told him, expressing concern "with regard to the solid and septic waste disposal and the potential zoning violations created by the structure," according to Giles' complaint in 2016.

Lidstone, a bearded, small-framed, spritely man, resisted efforts to leave since a judge issued an order for him to vacate in 2017. Following that, both sides had attempted to reach some sort of agreement for him, but were unsuccessful, according to court documents.

The vast bulk of Lidstone's personal items had been removed from the cabin before the fire, Giles' attorney Lisa Snow Wade said Wednesday night. Several outbuildings remained, and no animals were found, either running around or deceased, Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache said.

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