Investigations Begin after Huge New Hampshire Blaze

April 14, 2009
At the height of the fire, 40 community departments and hundreds of firefighters converged on the scene.

Fire investigators spent the day Monday combing through the rubble of a horrific 14-alarm fire in Alton Bay that destroyed 45 cottages at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center compound Sunday.

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At the height of the fire, 40 community departments and hundreds of firefighters converged on the scene, making it the largest fire the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid has ever dispatched in its 39-year history.

All that remained after the intense blaze were charred chimney stacks and empty foundations where houses once stood.

Gov. John Lynch was among the officials who came to see the extent of the devastation.

State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said investigators were working throughout the day to determine the cause and location of where the fire started. He said they may have found the area where the fire started, but were still trying to determine the cause.

"There is nothing suspicious at this time," Degnan said. "All options are still open right now. It's very early in the investigation."

Investigators had planned to discuss the information collected to see what leads need to be followed up on.

"We're going to see what loose ends might still be there so we can make sure we turned every stone possible in determining what the origin and cause of the fire is," Degnan said.

Deputy Fire Marshal John Southwell said the structure where they believe the fire started appeared to be vacant since last summer, but it was not clear if the power was shut off.

"We're looking at one central area where the smoke was first observed," Southwell said.

The New Hampshire Fire Marshal's Office usually has one investigator per fire investigation, but had three on location on Monday because of the volume of interviews and the size of the scene that had to be documented.

The governor walked through the rubble on Monday, getting a first-hand look at the ruins of what used to be summer homes for vacationers. There were around 60 cottages in the area of the fire, with around 80 percent of them being destroyed or significantly damaged.

"This is just total devastation, the fact that 45 cottages are completely destroyed," Lynch said. "We should all show our appreciation to the firefighters and the chief who worked so hard to contain the fire. It could have been a lot worse."

Lynch said that to replace all the cottages will end up costing millions of dollars. In response to a question from Alton Fire Chief Scott Williams, Lynch said he would check into whether the disaster would qualify for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"I want to thank Chief Williams for all that he did for mobilizing the response so quickly," Lynch said. "Chief Williams really deserves a lot of credit for the leadership that he was able to provide."

Before the fire was declared under control at around 11 p.m., 40 community fire departments made up of 200 firefighters had been dispatched over a six-hour period to the Conference Center. The call came in as a second-alarm smoke investigation when it was first toned but within minutes it went to a fifth alarm and eventually evolved to 14 alarms. Fuel trucks were brought in from local oil companies to provide addition fuel for fire apparatus.

"We have automatic sets that handle up to five alarms, but we went by that very rapidly yesterday," Chief Williams said. "We went to a total of 14 alarms. The first five alarms, we knew exactly what we were going to get and how many (personnel) we were going to get."

Williams said that after the fifth alarm, the dispatch center had assembled the additional support needed for the fire. He also mentioned that this was the first call the Alton Fire Rescue Department had all weekend.

"This is the largest fire the Mutual Fire Aid has ever dispatched," Williams said. "Hats off to them because they were a very important part of this."

When firefighters were battling the inferno, several propane tanks exploded, one causing a hose to come up and hit Alton Firefighter Mike Davenport in the face. Davenport is currently a freshman student at the department. He was transported to Lakes Region General Hospital where a CT scan found no internal injuries.

Davenport was released from the hospital and returned home Sunday night. Several other emergency responders were treated for smoke inhalation from battling the blaze for hours.

"Aside from the fact that one firefighter got injured, there were no injuries and loss of life," Lynch said. "This really reflects on how quickly they could respond to this emergency."

Between having a large fire and strong winds coming in from the northwest, these conditions mixed together formed the perfect concoction for a fire of this proportion. Williams said there were winds of up to 35 miles an hour, which had firefighters playing catch-up the entire time.

"This was probably the worst fear we had as a fire department," Williams said. "We had a pre-plan going since last year. The best thing about this situation was that it wasn't Fourth of July weekend."

He said the department had a plan for this type of situation with cottages being in such proximity to one another. The initial plan outlined what type of equipment is needed based on the alarm schedule.

"When you set up the evolutions, well in excess of 20,000 gallons per minute, it's going to take time," Williams said.

Williams said the largest problem besides the high winds was getting the water to where it needed to be. Fire crews were pumping up to 20,000 gallons of water per minute, which exceeded the capacity of the town's hydrant system, which is connected to a 200,000-gallon reservoir and cannot handle that demand.

"The wind fanning this just made it that much bigger," Williams said. "The plan went very, very well. When you have something of this magnitude to manage it's quite a job."

Williams said the containment of the fire was a success and that there could have been a lot more damage had they not reacted as quickly as they did. He said they had drop fires from a half mile away that were caused by embers that were flying down wind.

"The embers were flying down and could have caught other houses and yards on fire," Williams said. "We would have had additional properties damaged if we didn't have people further down the line watching for them."

Emergency personnel reported having seen homeowners in the area with garden hoses in case an ember was to fall on their property.

Selectman Peter Bolster was on-site assessing the damage, saying the cottages that burned down were some of the older cottages on the property. He recalled the fire in 1945 when many of the cottages were burned and said rebuilding the area is something the town will need to look into.

"We've got some issues to look at," Bolster said. "Anything that is going to be built back up will have to be built to code. There will have to be some changes; it will be a process."

He said this is another big hit for Alton that was not just the loss of buildings but memories of those who lived in the cottages during the summer.

"The saddest part is the memories lost here," Bolster said. "I feel sorry for those families who have been coming here over the years. The children, parents, grandparents and other generations have so many memories here."

Bolster said there is a lot of history of families spending summers here. Luckily none of the houses were occupied at the time of the fire. Most of the buildings were owned by individuals and are used primarily as vacation homes during the summer. The Conference Center owners each parcel of land and leases out the property.

Alton residents Rob and Kim Carpenter met in the camp 30 years ago, long before they were married.

"We grew up here. We both did," Kim Carpenter said, adding that they had to see the damage themselves even though they live elsewhere in town and their families no longer own property in the camp.

"It's more memories than anything," Kim Carpenter said.

Corinne Greeley Smith lives down the street from the camp on Route 11 and recalled how it was always nice to walk through the campground.

"This was a healing place for so many people," Greeley Smith said. "Hopefully it will continue to be a place for people to unwind and relax in the future.

She recalled how the camp was destroyed by fire in 1945, saying "We can rebuild again."

Foster's Daily Democrat reporter John Quinn contributed to this report.

Republished with permission from The Citizen of Laconia

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