CLAREMONT — A Sunday morning house fire at 86 Chestnut St. marked the third structure fire in Claremont this month and the fourth structure fire since April 2. While the number might seem unusually high, Claremont Fire Chief Bryan Burr said that a rash of fires is not “untypical.”
In an interview with the Eagle Times, Burr said there is no specific factor why these fires occurred closely together nor is the occurrence historically unique.
“There are various reasons why these particular buildings had fires,” Burr said. “It’s just happenstance that this is going on.”
Investigators attributed a couple of the fires to an electrical or mechanical failure, while the fire on Chestnut Street originated on the front porch, Burr said.
“There were factors leading up to the [Chestnut Street] fire that we’re still looking at, but I would say, without officially knowing, that it will probably end up being an accidental fire,” Burr said.
Meanwhile, the cause of the fatal fire at 28 Myrtle St. on Tuesday, May 5, will probably never be known, due to the massive destruction to the home, the fire chief said. The resident, 29-year-old Mia Follensbee, died from smoke inhalation.
Since Thursday, April 2, the Claremont Fire Department has responded to four structure fires and one brush fire. The first of the house fires occurred at 21 Dennison Ave. and resulted in one fatality, 58-year-old Francis Viola, Jr. In addition to 86 Chestnut St. and 28 Myrtle St., firefighters also put out a structure fire on 131 Mulberry St. on Tuesday, May 19.
“I know it’s frustrating for some people who want answers,” Burr said. “But we can’t predict electrical failure. We can’t predict human behavior. And a mix of those two factors lead up to the events we’ve had of late.”
Burr recalled similar and even worse rashes of house fires during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which he attributed to the number of neglected multi-family buildings that weren’t code-compliant.
“Up until the mid-90s, our annual fire response to first alarm structure fires was in the high twenties or thirties,” he said. “We were going to fires all the time. So while this [current string] may seem like a high number — and there have definitely been too many — this is a fraction of what we used to see.”
Proactive measures by the city and fire department in the mid-90s dramatically reduced the number of house fires, Burr said. About 15 years ago, then-Claremont Fire Chief Peter Chase initiated a multi-home inspection program, which resulted in more stringent building codes for residential homes. The city also tore down several condemned buildings that posed potential fire hazards.
“We saw a dramatic decrease in multi-family fires [as a result],” Burr said.
For the past couple of years, Burr has championed the importance of having working smoke detectors in every Claremont home. The Claremont Fire Department’s smoke alarm program raises money to purchase battery-operated smoke alarms that the firefighters install in homes free of charge.
“My hope is to give people who don’t have working smoke alarms a chance to get out safely,” Burr said, “and hopefully in five, 10 or 15 years, we’ll see the result of that.”
Producing a visible change is a slow process and it takes time for people to learn the importance of smoke alarms and get homes up to code, Burr said. People often don’t think about the actions and protections that might save them until an incident or accident occurs.
Burr said that each home should have one smoke alarm on each level and one smoke-alarm in each bedroom. For example, a two-level house with three bedrooms should have five smoke alarms total.
In Claremont’s two recent fatal fires, 21 Dennison Ave. had no smoke detectors and the only smoke alarm found at 28 Myrtle St. did not work, according to Burr. The fire department also found “at least” one working smoke alarm at 86 Chestnut St., where the four occupants at the time safely escaped the fire.
The department’s smoke alarm program is funded entirely through donations as well as grants, when available. Claremont businesses that donate to this cause include Red River, Mascoma Savings Bank, Claremont Savings Bank and Rymes Propane.
Burr said that the department also welcomes donations from citizens.
The program uses no taxpayer money, and it costs between $100-125 to purchase fire alarms for the average home. A donation of $20 nearly covers the cost of one alarm with a 10-year battery life expectancy.
People interested in donating to the smoke alarm program may send a check to the Claremont Fire Department with a note indicating it is for the smoke alarm fund.
The Claremont Fire Department is also about to begin a new round of canvassing the community, in which firefighters and volunteers will place door knockers outside the front of homes with more information on receiving alarms.