By Lisa Loomis
Thirty-six Mountainside Condominiums were destroyed by a fast-burning fire on February 17. Sixty to 75 firefighters from Warren, Waitsfield, Moretown, Waterbury, Stowe and Berlin battled the blaze which was called in around 1:30 a.m.
The condominium complex was 100 percent full for the holiday week, including owners and renters plus pets. Everyone (and their pets) escaped without injury and one family credited their dog with waking them up to sound the alarm. Mountainside had 90 residential and 7 commercial condominium units in three separate buildings. The building that burned is the closest building to Sugarbush's Out to Lunch trail.
Vermont State Police/Fire Inspector Detective/Sergeant Mark Potter said that the cause of the fire is still uncertain, but he said the fireplace inserts in the units are known for heating up over time. Potter also said that some of the smoke detectors in the affected building did not go off.
Warren fire chief Peter DeFreest said that when the first firefighters arrived there was smoke present in the unit from which the call came.
"The smoke got black right quick and we realized we were going to need more manpower," DeFreest said.
Very shortly after residents were evacuated, firefighters saw flames in the middle units.
"It looked like the fire started in a fireplace insert. That was basically a metal box that the manufacturer said didn't need much clearance," DeFreest said and noted that the state fire marshal has banned all use of the fireplaces in the remaining units until they can be inspected.
Firefighters were on scene from 1:30 a.m. until late afternoon on Monday and the building was still smoldering at 5:30 p.m. Firefighters returned to the scene at 6 p.m. as one unit had begun burning again. In addition to trying to put the fire out, firefighters had to cut down trees in front of the burning building to get the extension platform closer to the building. Firefighters and Sugarbush personnel also did some trenching in the snow to divert the water from the fire into the storm drainage system, the ditches and Rice Brook.
The bitter cold made fighting the blaze difficult and also resulted in one of Warren's diesel pumper trucks not starting. Upon arrival at the fire, firefighters could not open the first fire hydrant they came to because it was frozen, DeFreest said. They were able to open the second hydrant and began pumping water onto the fire. Initially they were using Mountain Water Company's domestic water supply and pumping at a rate of 600 gallons per minute.
That water system uses 11 bedrock wells, water from Clay Brook and multiple storage reservoirs and pumping stations to provide water for all of Sugarbush Village, all of Lincoln Peak and Sugarbush Health and Racquet Club. The system has storage for 410,000 gallons.
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DeFreest said that Sugarbush's chief administrative officer, Hardy Merrill, was on scene working closely with the firefighters on how the water was holding out. When the demand from the pumper trucks began to outstrip the ability of the domestic water system to keep up, Sugarbush got snowmaking personnel in to fire up the snowmaking system and five-inch water hoses were unfurled from the closest snowmaking hydrant up to the fire. For four hours, the fire was being fought using water from both systems.
When the domestic water system lost its ability to keep up, Sugarbush switched the water supply completely to the snowmaking system. When that happened, DeFreest said, firefighters were able to put 1,000 gallons a minute through their hoses.
Merrill, at Sugarbush, said that this week's fire marked the first time that Sugarbush's snowmaking pond (filled with water from the Mad River) had been used for firefighting. He said that the amount of water that went into fighting the fire was the equivalent of one 1,000-gallon pumper truck per minute and noted that the fire visibly dropped the level of the snowmaking pond.
Merrill and other Sugarbush employees were on scene from 3 a.m., shuttling the displaced condo residents to Timbers at Lincoln Peak for coffee, fruit and juice and a warm place to stay.
Barbara Brady, president of Mountainside Condominium Association, said the association is working with its insurance agents as are the impacted condo owners to begin the process of demolition and rebuilding. The condominiums were built in 1979.
"We're going to try and rebuild as quickly as possible," Brady said.