Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires

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

AP Photo/Brattleboro Fire Department/Jason Henske

In our series, “Burned Out, Vermont’s Apartment Fires,” we looked at some major fires that displaced tenants. We also learned how landlords are required, or, in some cases, merely advised, to make their buildings as fire-proof as possible.

Photo Courtesy, Vermont Division of Fire Safety

In Vermont, there are 32 fire inspectors, in four regional offices around the state.  In 2012, they did 17,000 inspections, according to Mike O’Neil, Director of the Division of Fire Safety for the state of Vermont.

“It’s a lot of work, we’re covering a pretty big footprint of the state, rural areas, municipalities as well,” O’Neil said.  

That’s just the state inspectors.

Herb Swanson / www.swanpix.com

Building owners who install either sprinklers or elevators in historic multi-use buildings in downtowns would get tax credits from the federal government under legislation introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy.

He made the announcement Friday in St. Johnsbury at the site of buildings that burned down in 2000. Since then two more major fires have struck the city, and none of the buildings had sprinklers. Leahy said the devastation from fires in other towns has also been tragic—and expensive.

VPR/Charlotte Albright

Over the past few years, Burlington  has tried to make its rental units more fireproof, or at least easier to evacuate during a fire.

In Vermont, any residential property in which people sleep, excluding single family homes, must meet fire codes and be inspected, either by the state or by a municipality. In Burlington, code inspections are done by the City, and there have been twice as many this year as there were four years ago. And only about ten per cent pass inspection on the first round.

William Morlock, Courtesy, Springfield Housing

In the summer of 2008, a block at the center of  Springfield was totally destroyed by fire. The blaze was set by an arsonist. Over 40 people were temporarily homeless and the fire leveled a movie theater and a few other businesses.

But today, the Ellis Block has been totally re-built.

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. 

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.

AP Photo/American Red Cross

Vermont has seen a number of large fires over the years, in Burlington, Brattleboro, Springfield and St. Johnsbury, to name a few, leaving deep scars across Vermont, damaging property and leaving people homeless. 

But what happens after these fires strike? And more importantly, what’s being done to keep Vermont’s renters in these buildings safe?

AP/Toby Talbot

Every year, according to the Fire Marshal’s report, fire strikes at least 2,000 buildings in Vermont. While the majority of these fires damage single family homes, about one fourth of the blazes rip through apartment buildings. Unlike private homes, those public spaces are subject to inspection by the state or the municipality.