Fire Destroys Hampton Beach Block of Businesses

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Hurricane-force Winds Fuel Flames

By Patrick Cronin

Portsmouth Herald, Saturday, February 27, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Portsmouth Herald and Seacoast Online.]
A workman looks at the damage of one of the structures lost in the Friday morning fire at Hampton Beach.
[Deb Cram photo]

HAMPTON -- A fire fueled by heavy winds quickly spread from the Surf Motel on Hampton Beach to adjacent buildings, destroying an entire block of beach businesses. The blaze was brought under control after about four hours early Friday morning, with the help of approximately 40 fire departments from communities in Maine, Massachusetts and as far away as the Lakes Region.

"This is a sad day," said Hampton Beach Area Commission Chairman John Nyhan. "These folks have worked hard all these years, struggling to make ends meet these last few years, and to have this happen, it's just horrible."

Firefighters vigorously battled the blaze that erupted close to midnight Thursday, and by the time it was brought under control, the Surf Motel, Mrs. Mitchell's souvenir shop, Happy Hampton Arcade and two other properties were determined to be a total loss.

An additional six to eight properties were damaged, including the Moulton Hotel.

Most of the businesses, including the Surf Motel, are open only in the summer. No one was in any of the structures at the time the fire broke out, except for one person living above the Happy Hampton Arcade, who was evacuated safely.

Hampton Fire Chief Chris Silver said the weather at the time of the blaze was rainy and windy because of the Nor'easter moving up the Atlantic Coast. That helped push the flames from structure to structure, the chief said.

Firefighters worked rapidly to prevent the fire from consuming more of the older, mostly wooden structures on the beach. Silver said the high winds coming out of the northeast pushed the fire horizontally towards the other buildings.

"We were concerned at one point that it would spread across Ashworth Avenue," Silver said.

Most of the buildings involved were at least 50 years old and not outfitted with fire suppression systems. The arcade had a sprinkler system, but it was shut off earlier that day because it was damaged.

The chief said it took firefighters roughly five minutes to respond to the fire because one crew was on the scene of another fire in the basement of a Winnacunnet Road property, and another crew was on a mutual aid call out of town.

According to Silver, the Hampton Beach station was without power, and the fire dispatch center had to be set up at the uptown fire station.

The department was also inundated with calls related to the storm, including downed trees and wires caused by the 60 mph to 90 mph winds.

Hampton Beach Village Precinct Commissioner June White said this was the worst fire in recent years to hit the beach.

"We lost an entire block," White said. "Mrs. Mitchell's souvenir shop has been here for years. It's just shocking.

"Hopefully, they will be able to rebuild and we won't have another vacant lot here," White said.

Jared Sharpe, a Greenland, Mass., resident said in an e-mail that he was shocked to hear the news. He remembers staying at the Surf Motel every summer as child with his family and stayed there again this past summer on a trip to the area.

"It was like stepping through a time warp back into my childhood," Sharpe wrote. "My girlfriend and I sat on the balcony of our room at the Surf, looking out on the ocean, listening to the waves and smelling the sea.

"We bought gifts at Mrs. Mitchell's. We played classic arcade games at the Happy Hampton. We ate breakfast at the diner," he wrote. "We bought homemade fudge, taffy and ice cream at the Surf Sweet Shop. I was 31 years old, but felt like I was 12 again.

"I will remember every one of those wonderful businesses the rest of my life," Sharpe wrote.

This isn't the first time the area was ravaged by fire.

Silver said the same area was completely devastated by fire in 1915, 1923, and again in 1950.

This was the most devastating fire since the blaze that destroyed the Old Salt restaurant on Hampton Beach in 1999, and the Valentine's Day fire in 2007, which destroyed nine buildings, also on the beach.

More than a dozen people were relocated as a result of Thursday night's fire, mostly from properties feared to be at risk located around those involved in the blaze. A shelter, operated by the American Red Cross, was opened at Winnacunnet High School for those individuals and others who were without power as a result of the storm.

Silver said that while officials were battling the blaze, the department received roughly 30 additional calls for service. As a result, the department requested a mutual aid task force from the Lakes Region that brought an additional six engines, two ladders and an ambulance into town.

"In the town of Hampton, all requests did get a response," Silver said.

The chief estimated that there were more than 165 firefighters operating in the community throughout the event.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Vinyl siding is curled due to extreme heat from a six alarm structure fire on Hampton Beach which started with the Surf Hotel and also took down four other structures.
[Deb Cram photo]
A woman takes a digital picture of the six alarm fire aftermath Friday morning as a crowd gathers to see five structures completely lost in the flames on Hampton Beach.
[Deb Cram photo]
During a multi-block early morning fire at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, Friday, February 26, 2010.
[Deb Cram photo]
During a multi-block early morning fire at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, Friday, February 26, 2010.
[John Carden photo]
Firefighters battle a multi-block blaze early Friday morning at Hampton Beach.
[John Carden photo]
Mrs. Mitchell's ablaze in the night.
[Rusty Bridle photo]
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