Grill sparks damaging fire at Morgan Woods

Edgartown firefighters work to douse a fire that heavily damaged two apartments in the Morgan Woods affordable housing development last Thursday. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

A fire that began on a backyard propane grill and triggered the safety valve of another propane tank, which then functioned like a powerful blowtorch, damaged three homes in the Morgan Woods affordable housing development in Edgartown last Thursday. A preliminary investigation indicates the cause of the fire was accidental, according to Edgartown fire chief Peter Shemeth. He said a variety of unfortunate factors combined to spread the fire.

A tenant grilling at the rear of the three-unit building left the scene to get away from a fire that started in a small grill. The fire spread to the building, where another propane grill tank was stored. The propane tank safety valve is designed to prevent the tank from exploding. “The product inside begins to boil, and builds up pressure,” Chef Shemeth said. “There’s a pressure relief valve that opens up so it doesn’t explode. The unfortunate part of that is it vents like a huge blowtorch.”

On the night of the fire, stiff winds were blowing toward the building at 26 English Oak Road. The flaming propane tank quickly accelerated the fire in the wood clapboard exterior of the building, and the flames reached up into the soffet vents at the edge of the roof. Because of the very hot temperatures that day, a natural air flow streamed from the soffet vents to the ridge vent at the top of the roof, drawing the flames quickly to the top of the building, according to Chief Shemeth.

“Smoke, flames, lots of flames,” said Jessica Burgoyne, the on-site property manager for Morgan Woods, who was driving onto the development when she found out about the fire. “I can’t believe how quickly it spread.”

The first call came into the Edgartown fire department at 6:03 pm on Thursday evening, and Chief Shemeth said the first truck dispatched from the fire station on Pease Point Way arrived at Morgan Woods within several minutes. The response included four trucks from Edgartown and one from Oak Bluffs. The Edgartown truck stationed on Chappaquiddick crossed over to the main Island to cover the Edgartown firehouse. No firefighters were injured.

The center apartment in the building is the home of Michael Cass and his daughter. Four other people live in the two outside apartments, along with two cats and a dog. All of the residents, and their pets, were already out of the home when the fire department arrived. The residents stayed with friends or family members elsewhere on the Vineyard Thursday evening. The Red Cross was making arrangements for temporary housing, and the Salvation Army provided emergency supplies.

Ms. Burgoyne was working this week to get one of the families back into one apartment that was not extensively damaged in the fire, but she said the other two tenants will probably not be able to move back to the development until September. Contractors worked to secure the building over the weekend.

“The construction folks worked all weekend, so there’s no more damage from rain or anything like that,” Ms. Burgoyne said. “They put a temporary roof structure on it. I have never seen so many contractors and vendors and people come together and work on a holiday in my life. This Island is amazing.”

John Economos, senior manager for The Community Builders in southeastern Massachusetts, was overseeing the recovery and reconstruction effort on Friday morning. The Community Builders developed, owns, and manages the development homes. He said the buildings could most likely be saved. “It’s probably a matter of ripping the top half of the building off,” Mr. Economos said. Restoration crews begin removing and cleaning damaged furniture, rugs, clothes, and other household items on the morning after the fire. Architects and builders were at the scene on Tuesday to assess the damage and plan repairs to the building.

Efforts to help the displaced families began even before the smoke cleared. “Everybody here has offered to help out,” Ms. Burgoyne said. Neighbors donated food, clothing, and shoes for the six people whose homes were damaged. Edgartown merchants also contributed goods and services.

Named for Fred “Ted” Morgan, a former long-time selectman and tireless advocate for affordable housing, Morgan Woods was completed in the spring of 2007. It is the largest affordable rental housing development on Martha’s Vineyard. Tenants pay rent according to their income and other qualifications for units ranging from $664 to $1,938 per month. There is a long waiting list for the lower-priced apartments. In recent years the town has subsidized the higher-priced apartments with funds from its affordable housing trust, in part because some market rate apartments in Edgartown were renting for less than those at Morgan Woods. A total of 60 apartments with broad front porches are clustered around three neatly landscaped common areas designed to promote a sense of community. It sits on 12 acres of land leased by the town for a nominal fee to The Community Builders Inc. The Community Builders bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developer. Morgan Woods was financed by a consortium of public and private investors, at a development cost of $16 million, according to Community Builders.