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In the Special Series, Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires, VPR reporters look at the issue of apartment building fire regulations which unlike private homes, are subject to inspection by the state or the municipality.The series looks at regulations, reconstruction and the people affected by apartment fires in Vermont

St. Johnsbury Fire Still Leaves Scars In City Four Years Later

AP/Toby Talbot

Over the past five years, some spectacular fires have ripped through apartment buildings in Vermont. St. Johnsbury has been especially hard hit.

It was a warm July night in 2009, and Bob Wilkins, a third floor tenant  at 1244 Main Street, had kicked off his shoes and settled in to watch the eleven o’clock news. 

Credit VPR/Charlotte Albright
Bob Wilkins, survivor of 2009 fire, strolls near the Fairbanks Museum across the street from his new home.

As he  remembers, apartment neighbors pounded on his door, but he ignored them, mistaking them for, in his words, “rowdies.” Then he started smelling smoke.

“And I went downstairs and opened the door to the next floor and it was very smoky and it was very hot so I decided not to go in and went up and waved to the firemen out the window,” Wilkins recalled. “And they, in very slow motion, took a ladder off the truck and eased it up to me and I’m on the third floor. And they climbed up and broke the window and got me out of there,” he said.

Like most of his neighbors, Wilkins lost all his possessions in the fire. He says the trauma has left  psychological and financial wounds. Wilkins now lives in an apartment down the street from his former one. His face is weathered  and his smile has gaps. He feels lucky to have survived a blaze that grabbed headlines and took over 19 departments almost two days to extinguish.

No cause was ever determined, and four years later, all that’s left of the apartment building and two adjacent properties is an ugly hole in the ground surrounded by a chain link fence.

Credit VPR/Charlotte Albright
The site of a 2009 fire in St. Johnsbury still leaves scar in the downtown.

Wilkins’s landlord, Gerald Boardman, owned a convenience store on the first floor. Now that he’s lost his business, he spends most weekday mornings sharing coffee with fellow retirees at the St. Johnsbury McDonald’s. Unlike his tenants, Boardman had fire insurance, but he says he used it to pay off his mortgages, and other debts.

”I was late on stuff because people hadn’t always paid me, and there was a little bit of money left over but I feel it’s going to cost five million dollars to build a new building and I didn’t have five million dollars,” Boardman said.

Gerald Boardman’s property at 1244 Main Street had been inspected in 2002 by the state Department of Fire Safety.

Records at the Department of Fire Safety show that Boardman’s building had last been inspected in 2002, seven years before the fire. The only violations reported then concerned electrical outlets.  But smoke detectors, Boardman admits, were a chronic problem. By law they must be hard wired, not just battery run.  But for many tenants who hadn’t paid their bills, the electricity was turned off, and  batteries were missing or dead.

“So the state fire marshal would come around and he would inspect the apartments and he would write me up and I would have to go in and put batteries back in. When I first started the store, yeah, you had to have a smoke detector—maybe--but by the time of the fire you had to have smoke detectors, they had to be wired in and they had to have the battery back-up.

The Boardman fire was just one in a series that have set St. Johnsbury’s downtown ablaze since 2000. And the problem persists.

In 2012, another apartment building was totally destroyed by fire. That property is owned by Bruno Ravel, who has declined interviews.

State inspectors advised Bruno Ravel to install sprinklers in his Railroad Street properties, He did so at 430, but had not done so at 438, when it burned in 2012.

Ravel is rebuilding.

St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Troy Ruggles says he appreciates private owners and public officials who invest in the reconstruction of St. Johnsbury’s burned out blocks. But he says he also wants to see more pro-active help for landlords who can’t afford to install sprinklers.

“We need to get monies into these property owners to allow them to put in sprinkler systems, to put in fire alarm systems to make their buildings fire safe so we never have to deal with this again,” Ruggles said.

A state law makes $40,000 available annually to landlords who apply for help to install sprinklers, capped at $2000 per building.  Fire safety advocates say those funds are inadequate.

Meanwhile, in St. Johnsbury, a non-profit housing agency is eyeing the Boardman site, where a new apartment building will need to meet much higher building and fire code standards than its burned out predecessor.

VPR looks at these issues in our week-long series Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires. Explore the series online or hear it beginning Monday August 12 at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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