By Rachel Goff
Recent fires in condos surrounding Sugarbush Resort are prompting the town of Warren to look into zoning laws.
On December 13 at 12:30 a.m., a fire at Summit Condos in Sugarbush Village resulted in damage that took two units out of the rental rotation. In February of 2014, 36 units were destroyed due to a fire at Mountainside Condominium, just up the road.
With the exception of the resort's most recent developments, most of the lodging in Sugarbush Village was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, when building codes were very different than what they are now. Newer developments on the mountain, such as Rice Brook Condominiums that were completed in 2014, don't have any wood-burning fireplaces.
"I think that with construction methods today, gas is a cheaper and safer alternative," Warren Volunteer Fire Department chief Peter DeFreest said. Vermont State Police traced the source of the Mountainside Condominium fire back to the building's fireplace inserts, which are known to heat up over time.
As for the Summit Condos fire, the fire department is taking samples to investigate the source of the flames, but DeFreest thinks it could have to do with the material surrounding the fireplace.
"The suspicion is that, over time, the wood kind of becomes like charcoal," he said. In addition, the fireplaces at Summit Condos are zero-tolerance," DeFreest said. They need air space around them in order to cool, he explained, "but some people have put glass doors in front of them, which affects how hot they get."
Right now, Summit Condos is under a no-burn order from the state. In order to avoid future fires, "I do think the no-burn order is something we should look at," Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland said at the board's meeting on January 13.
It's something the town should look at "for all the condos," chair Andy Cunningham echoed, and the board discussed whether there was some change it could make to the town's zoning laws to prohibit wood fires in older resort lodging, although working with insurance companies is "probably where we could get the most leverage," Ackland said.
Besides older construction codes, one issue that could be contributing to fire damage on the mountain is the accessibility of the buildings in Sugarbush Village. In terms of getting trucks to Summit Condos, "It's always been that there's one lane in and we have to deal with it," DeFreest said. "But I don't know if we have to deal with it. ... We're starting to get a little pushier," he said. "We're starting to look at what we can change."
Looking at changes, however, requires time and money, and "at some point, we need to start looking at it like a paid department," DeFreest said.
Indeed, "In communities such as ours across the nation, they've begun to realize this," Ackland said, resulting in things like impact fees for buildings that help fund local fire safety.
Moving forward, increasing stipends for volunteer firefighters in Warren is up for discussion. If the town were to transition into having a paid fire department, "It would probably start with one or two guys, and then it would go from there," DeFreest said.