Fire chief blames budget in Hampton Beach blaze

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Staffing levels, station problems cited

By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Tuesday, March 2, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Mrs. Mitchell's gift shop, and the Surf Motel above it, were among the businesses destroyed in the early Friday morning fire at Hampton Beach.
[Rusty Bridle photo / Hampton Falls F.D]

HAMPTON -- Fire officials said lack of manpower and equipment failures at the beach fire station may have played a role in the disastrous outcome of the five-alarm blaze late Thursday night that leveled a block of businesses at Hampton Beach.

Fire Chief Chris Silver said, if the department had additional staff on duty and was responding directly from the beach fire station on Ashworth Avenue, the outcome may have been different.

"I say that 'maybe' because we will never know," Silver said. "You can say 'what if' a million different ways, but this goes for every fire. If you have a quick response with enough people to control it, you limit the damage."

Silver said he believes three factors contributed to the fire's extent: response time, an initial arrival of a very limited number of fire personnel at the scene and high winds from the storm. While the department usually has nine firefighters on duty per shift, it was scheduling only eight per shift on the night of the fire due to budget cuts.

"We are not properly staffed, but we also realize that we can't afford to staff the way we should," Silver said. "The proper staffing to do all things necessary when there is a fire is 15 on duty."

Hampton firefighters, with help from 40 area fire departments, vigorously battled the blaze that erupted in the Surf Motel near midnight Thursday and was fueled by 75 mph winds. When it was brought under control after 4½ hours early Friday morning, the motel, Happy Hampton Arcade, Mrs. Mitchell's souvenir shop and two other properties were a total loss. An additional six to eight properties were damaged, including the Moulton Hotel.

Silver said officials are still investigating the cause of the fire but do not suspect foul play.

The chief said it took roughly five minutes for the department to arrive at the scene. It took another 10 minutes before crews could actually start spraying water on the blaze and an additional five minutes before mutual aid arrived. Several factors, he said, contributed to the delayed response, including the fact that the century-old beach fire station was forced to close late Thursday night because its 40-plus-year-old generator failed after 10 minutes once power was lost.

Adding to the issues with the station closure was that officials couldn't get a pumper truck out of the building. The electrical doors would not work and the override mechanism failed because of corrosion caused by the salt water when the street floods.

"We had a working pumper truck that we could not get to," Silver said. "It was just sitting there during the fire."

The station's dispatch also had to be rerouted to the uptown Winnacunnet Road fire station and at one point when wires went down, dispatch had to use a cell phone to send out crews and take calls.

Silver said, when the department received the first call that Surf Motel was on fire, all apparatuses were already out on other calls. Two engines and a ladder track were fighting an electrical fire in a basement at 158 Winnacunnet Road. The remaining engine had just finished at the scene of an evacuation at Hampton Harbor Hotel after a section of its roof blew off. It was on its way to another call on Dumas Avenue. Silver said it took about five minutes for the engine at Dumas Avenue to reach the Surf Motel.

"There were only three firefighters on the engine, and that is not enough to properly fight a fire," Silver said. "The two firefighters conducted a search inside the building and then evacuated after all the windows in the motel blew out."

Silver said the engine stood by an additional five minutes for crews from the Winnacunnet Road station to arrive before firefighters could try to put out the fire. By that time, the building was fully engulfed, he said. Silver said winds from the storm helped push the flames from structure to structure.

"We were concerned at one point that it would spread across Ashworth Avenue," he said. "We decided early to create a defensive position to protect the buildings on the west side of Ashworth Avenue."

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.

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

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

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

Assessing damage

Silver said officials are working to assess the fire damage, which they estimate to be more than $6 million. Gov. John Lynch toured the beach Sunday and approved a helicopter to take aerial photos of the town to aid officials in assessing the damage. Police Chief James Sullivan said the helicopter photos showed roof damage to many structures in coastal towns.

On Sunday, the beach was bombarded with people who came from all over to take pictures of the charred remains.

"I still can't believe this happened," said Carl Reilly, who along with his wife drove from Lawrence, Mass. "The Surf Sweet Shop was our favorite candy store. They had the best fudge. We would come up each summer just for that fudge."

As tourists came far to see the damage for themselves, those who lost their livelihoods began to ponder what's next. Happy Hampton Arcade owner Ray Blondeau said he hopes to rebuild the establishment he purchased in 1991.

"It's more than a business to me; it's very personal," said Blondeau. "We touched many lives. This is hard for me."

Mourners of the Happy Hampton Arcade set up a Facebook page to share memories of the place they visited in the summertime.

Silver said the same area was completely devastated by fires in 1915, 1923 and 1950. This was the most devastating fire since the blaze that destroyed the Old Salt restaurant on the beach in 1999 and the Valentine's Day fire in 2007 that destroyed five summer cottages and damaged four other homes on the beach.

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