Blaze Near Closed Mass. Station Reignites Debate
The station is six doors away from a house where a fire left 15 people homeless.


The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Posted: Wed, 02/03/2010 - 09:08
Updated: Wed, 02/03/2010 - 11:04

LAWRENCE, Mass. -- A late-morning fire caused by an electric space heater left 15 people homeless yesterday and reignited debate over why the Prospect Hill firehouse, just six doors away, remains closed.

"We've already had this one tragedy. We don't need another," said District A City Councilor Sandy Almonte, who spent the day helping the fire victims.

"This is the wake-up call. We need this fire station open," said Almonte. The Prospect Hill firehouse was closed Aug. 14, 2009, due to budget cuts.

No one was injured in the 10:49 a.m. fire, despite early reports that people were trapped inside the three-story building at 359 Howard St.

The house, originally built in 1880, was heavily damaged by fire, and the residents, which included several young children, were left scrambling for shelter on a windy, 35-degree day.

The American Red Cross and Trauma Intervention Program of the Merrimack Valley helped the displaced residents yesterday.

The cause of the fire was ruled accidental. An electric space heater was left running too close to combustible material on the second-floor porch, acting Fire Chief Brian Murphy said.

Neighbor Michael Coutris was one of the first to spot the heavy smoke billowing from the house and called 911. He pointed to the closed firehouse about 300 feet from the still smoldering house. He said it took a "good 10 minutes" before firefighters arrived and minutes more before they started to extinguish the flames.

"If they were open across the street, they would have seen it," he said. "God forbid this was at night or during a storm. It would have burned for an hour before they came up the hill."

But Murphy said it took firefighters three minutes to arrive from the Lowell Street headquarters and when they did, they were met by roaring flames and heavy smoke shooting out of the second-floor windows.

Murphy was adamant that if Engine 6 on Howard Street was open and properly staffed the damage would have been minimal. Crews would have responded in 30 seconds, Murphy said.

Coutris, who is a builder, said the homes are older and were made using balloon framing, "which burns like hay."

Homes with balloon construction have large gaps in the walls, which allows fire to quickly travel.

"If it were a windy day, it could have set the whole side of the road in flames," Coutris said.

Firefighters tried to get into the building, but the intensity of the flames blocked their way.

"The heat and the fire was just too much to make an interior attack," said Lt. Graeme Millar, standing among his soot-covered colleagues on Howard Street.

When the fire started on the second floor, it quickly blew upward through the third floor, Murphy said. Windows were blown out and charred front porches on the second and third floors collapsed. Vinyl siding was curled like ribbons down the sides of the building.

Andover and Methuen firefighters assisted Lawrence firefighters at the scene. Firefighters from Dracut, Middleton, Haverhill and Lowell covered city stations during the fire.

The property is valued at $310,300, according to city assessing records. Murphy estimated yesterday's fire damage at $250,000.

Almonte, who lives nearby at 33 Woodland St., said she received countless calls yesterday from area residents who were concerned about the closed firehouse.

"I'm very upset about it because the response time could have been much better," she said. "I'm putting all my efforts into getting this firehouse open."

Last August, the firehouses were closed because firefighters were laid off and there wasn't enough manpower to keep them open. In the fall, the city received federal stimulus money to rehire the firefighters.

That money runs out in November, however, officials said.

Agreeing with Almonte, City Council President Frank Moran yesterday said, "You can't put a price on a life." He urged the fire chief, who he described as "the expert in what their department is doing" to come before the council and talk about reopening the firehouses.

"The people need to come in front of us and let us know what they need," said Moran.

However, funding will continue to be a problem as the city faces a $24.5 million deficit, said Leonard Degnan, Mayor William Lantigua's chief of staff. Officials are now waiting for legislation to be passed so the city can borrow as much as $35 million to cover the deficit.

"When we get that deficit borrowing out of the way, then we can plan and see what we can properly fund," Degnan said. "Right now, the issue with the firehouses is there isn't enough funding to cover them. The situation we are in is a tough situation."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service