2016-03-03 / Around Town

Firefighters Kept Neighborhood Safe

By Jack Kelly

Newport firefighters arrived on the scene of this engulfed structure and stayed on the scene for four days monitoring hot spots. Since 1997, of there have been three other three-alarm blazes in Newport. 
(Photo by Dan Young) Newport firefighters arrived on the scene of this engulfed structure and stayed on the scene for four days monitoring hot spots. Since 1997, of there have been three other three-alarm blazes in Newport. (Photo by Dan Young) Newport firefighters, as well as some members of other Aquidneck Island fire departments, were put through a grueling test on Thursday, Feb. 25, when a massive, wind-whipped three-alarm fire consumed Stonor Lodge, the former home of the late Noreen Stonor Drexel at 479 Bellevue Ave.

According to published reports, the 100-year-old nine-bedroom, 11-bath sprawling home was unoccupied as interior and exterior renovations were underway. The fire ignited in the late afternoon hours, shortly before dusk. Flames were aided by strong west/southwest winds and, unimpeded by furnishings or other obstacles, spread swiftly and engulfed the century-old wooden structure in minutes.

“The initial response companies found the building fully involved upon arrival and immediately requested additional support. Within minutes, the on-scene incident commander called for a second alarm, and shortly thereafter a third alarm,” Newport Fire Chief Peter Connerton explained.

The high winds carried flaming embers high into the air, potentially endangering a number of homes and historic buildings in the area. Nervous neighbors gathered along Coggeshall Avenue near the rear driveway of Stonor Lodge. The crowd shouted encouragement and words of thanks to firefighters as they set up hose lines from every hydrant in the area and marshaled equipment to fight the raging inferno.

Someone in the crowd called out, “We’re praying for you boys. You be safe in there!”

One local woman, who asked not to be identified, softly declared, “I’ve never seen anything like this. The flames were everywhere at once, coming out of windows, climbing the building, and shooting at least 50 or 60 feet in the air through the roof. It moved so fast, almost like a living creature. I couldn’t believe how fast parts of the house began to collapse in on itself!”

Others in the crowd agreed with the awe-struck woman and shared their own accounts of how fast the fire spread and consumed the once elegant home.

A number of Newport firefighters’ families and friends assembled together at the corner of Hazard and Coggeshall avenues, near an established fire line. Most had relatives on duty at the time of the first call, but others had gotten word when their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers had been called in from off-duty status by the third alarm. “We were just sitting down to eat when the ‘Code Red’ went out,” said one family member who asked that her name not be used. “Dinner is still on the table, but it’s covered and it will keep. I’ll warm it up later.”

The initial response to a fire call is normally 11 or 12 firefighters and officers, as well as a deputy chief. In the case of a working fire being suppressed, the remaining companies and rescue are dispatched to the scene. In the event of a second alarm, the on-call shift, those working opposite the on-duty shift, is called. This allows for personnel to assist on-scene to mitigate the incident and backfill coverage to maintain services elsewhere in the city.

If all Newport firefighters are needed at the scene, the East Bay Control for Mutual Aid, located at the Portsmouth Fire Department Dispatch, is notified. Fire departments across the East Bay region are put on alert for a mutual aid response, which usually involves manning fire stations outside of the incident zone.

In the event of a third alarm, all off-duty firefighters are called in through the Code Red Notification System. Firefighters respond with their “turn-out gear,” consisting of their helmet, coat, bunker pants, and boots, which they have available at all times. Responding mutual aid fire companies are also directed to the scene.

“We had excellent assistance from a number of fire companies,” Connerton said. “Middletown sent an engine to assist with operations on scene, while Portsmouth dispatched an aerial truck and an engine to assist with fire suppression. The Naval Station Fire Department was also on scene aiding our efforts. Jamestown sent an aerial truck and engine to cover Station 1, and North Kingstown covered Station 2. Middletown Chief Ron Doire and Portsmouth Chief Mike Cranson responded with their fire companies as well.”

The Middletown and Naval Station engine companies were assigned to the Bellevue Avenue side of the property, teaming up with Newport firefighters, where the bulk of burning embers and thick smoke was being pushed by the wind. Portsmouth’s aerial truck and engine took up defensive positions on Coggeshall Avenue, lending their support to Newport’s fire line.

Despite the best efforts of the assembled army of firefighters, the superheated blaze, fed by the wind and fueled by dry wood, tore through the structure at a fantastic speed. About an hour after the first alarm, the building began to collapse into piles of burning rubble.

“All things considered, we were very fortunate during this extreme incident. Factoring in the high volume of fire and flying embers driven by strong, gusty winds, the threat of exposure fires in adjacent properties was a real concern. Thankfully, we didn’t have to deal with those events,” Connerton stated. “We are also lucky that we didn’t have any major injuries to our firefighting personnel or bystanders. One Newport firefighter sustained a minor injury, but he is expected to return to duty with his shift.”

Hot spots in the debris required continued careful monitoring. The last fire watch was terminated and the last equipment was removed from the property four days after the initial incident. Local and state fire officials are conducting an ongoing investigation of the fire, and no definitive cause has been determined.

“I’m very pleased with the professionalism and expertise that Newport firefighter personnel and the mutual aid community departments displayed, while bringing this incident quickly and safely to a successful resolution, considering what they were presented with that afternoon and evening,” Connerton stated, summing up the feelings of many who watched the horrible event unfold in their neighborhood.

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