New Year’s Day fire destroys Oak Bluffs house

Oak Bluffs firefighters battled to knock down the fire and keep the blaze from spreading. — Photo by Bob Gatchell

A fast-moving New Year’s Day fire destroyed a newly built Spruce Avenue house in Oak Bluffs. Arriving firefighters quickly turned their attention from saving the fully engulfed house to preventing the flames from spreading in the tightly packed neighborhood.

A resident and a guest were in the house when the fire began, but escaped unharmed, according to fire officials. No firefighters were injured battling the fire, first reported at 2:50 pm, Sunday.

Oak Bluffs assistant fire Chief Tony Ferreira said there was no chance to save the building. “It was fully involved,” he told The Times Sunday evening at the scene of the blaze. “Because there were no occupants in the house, the decision was made to make a defensive attack.”

The two-story Victorian-style house at 17 Spruce Avenue, just off New York Avenue, is owned by Ronald Jackson Jr. and Rene Jackson of Vineyard Haven.

Paola Fuller, owner of Menemsha Blues, a well-known clothing store, rented the house.

The initial response was hampered by a volunteer force whose ranks was depleted by the holiday and an old fire hydrant used as a lawn ornament inside the dog pen of a nearby house. The first fire company to arrive connected hoses to the authentic, but non-working fire hydrant.

Fire investigators from Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, Edgartown, and West Tisbury spent most of Monday, January 2, at the fire scene working to determine the cause. Blown-in insulation used in the construction of the house made for a lot of heavy, wet, debris inside the burned structure, complicating the investigation.

“It could take them a few days,” Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Peter Forend said. He was off-Island at the time of the fire, but has been overseeing the follow-up and investigation. “There is nothing to indicate it was suspicious whatsoever. At this time it seems accidental.” He said it will take several days for investigators to complete their work.

Battle plan

The Spruce Avenue neighborhood is thickly settled, with houses just a few feet from each other, on narrow, winding streets. Firefighters worked to keep the flames from spreading to other buildings.

“Our first responsibility and the first task at hand was to protect the houses around the fire,” assistant chief John Rose said. “We were trying to save the two houses on the downwind side; they were really close. Then we started putting water on the fire once more apparatus arrived.”

Firefighters also used foam to douse the flames. “It sticks to the wood, it doesn’t evaporate like water,” Mr. Rose said. “It doesn’t rekindle.”

Mr. Rose said the biggest challenge for the fire department was getting enough firefighters to the scene. Many volunteer firefighters were away for the holiday.

“The beginning of the fire really was about getting enough manpower there,” Mr. Rose said. “Once we had enough manpower, we were able to knock it down very quickly.”

Devastating loss

Rene Jackson said her family bought the property four years ago, and replaced the dilapidated structure that was there with a new house. She said her husband, Ronald Jackson, an Island builder, built the house in his spare time, with the help of his brother Billy.

“There’s a bit of a love story behind that house,” Ms. Jackson said. She said her family got very attached to it, although they originally purchased as an investment property. She said the family enjoyed working with neighbors and town regulatory boards to make sure the house fit into the historic neighborhood, and getting to know the summer visitors who rented the house.

“The thing I wish I had most was the guestbook,” Ms. Jackson said. “People were on the Vineyard, they were in a great mood, they had a great house. That house brought so much happiness to so many people.”

Ms. Jackson said her family plans to rebuild. She praised the efforts of firefighters and said she was thankful no other houses were damaged.

The fire was also devestating to Ms. Fuller, who rented the home for the first time this winter. On Wednesday she was dealing with the loss of her personal effects.

“It’s really traumatic,” Ms. Fuller said in a brief phone conversation. “Everything in that house that I owned is gone. I don’t even have an ID on me right now.”

Mistaken hydrant

At the fire scene Sunday night, several hours after firefighters extinguished the flames, Mr. Ferreira was troubled by the delay caused by hooking up to a non-working hydrant.

“We wasted precious time hooking up to a fire hydrant that was nonexistent,” Mr. Ferreira said. “It’s unacceptable to have to waste that kind of time. In a fire, time is everything.”

Chief Forend said he did not consider the fire hydrant mixup a mistake. “Absolutely not,” he said. “They had no way of knowing it wasn’t active. It’s being made more of a big deal than it was. It didn’t delay anything. Unfortunately, the outcome wouldn’t have been any different.”

Chief Forend said the town water department owns and maintains fire hydrants and keeps lists of hydrant locations. In the heat of battling a fire, he said, it is sometimes difficult to locate hydrants.

“We know where the majority of our hydrants are, but they change all the time,” Chief Forend said. “They’re not always on town property. When they pull up and see a fire hydrant, it looks active, they have no way of knowing it’s not.”

The non-working hydrant was on the property of Bob Murphy, a well-known Oak Bluffs businessman and owner of Town and Country Realty. The hydrant was upright, inside a fenced dog pen next to Mr. Murphy’s house at the end of Spruce Avenue and about 15 feet off Simpson Avenue, which borders his house.

“That’s not a real hydrant,” Mr. Murphy said in a telephone call. “Somebody threw it away. It’s in my dog’s yard. I can’t tell you much more than that.”

While firefighters were hooking up hoses to the non-working hydrant on his property, Mr. Murphy was at the fire scene, among neighbors who gathered there when word spread of the house on fire. He said he never considered it might be mistaken for a real fire hydrant.

“I never really thought about it,” Mr. Murphy said. “It’s in a backyard, off the road.”

Chief Forend said that Island fire departments are working to implement a new system that gives firefighters an accurate location of every hydrant using global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, but it is expensive and funding has been an issue.

Chief Forend said he asked the town water department to investigate. He said the hydrant was not the kind used in Oak Bluffs, though it looked very similar to the active fire hydrants used by the town.

“This one looked better than some of the ones we have in service,” Chief Forend said.

There is no state law or local bylaw preventing someone from using an authentic fire hydrant as a lawn ornament, Chief Forend said.