Two fires that swallowed a South Main Street building late Saturday night and singed the Stowe Free Library building are being treated as suspicious by Vermont State Police.
The library fire was doused after it did perhaps $10,000 in damage, but the fire at 638 S. Main St., which broke out less than half an hour later, destroyed the south Stoware Common building, home to five businesses and a storage area for the Stowe Theatre Guild.
The library fire came first, at about 11:15 Saturday night, drawing firefighters from Stowe, Morristown, Waterbury, Hyde Park and Elmore to the building at 90 Pond St.
While firefighters were heading to Stowe Fire Department’s station at the public safety building, they saw that the building at 638 S. Main St. was also on fire.
Assistant Fire Chief Kyle Walker, also a sergeant with Stowe Police Department, found flames near a window at the rear of the building and was able to put the fire out by himself with a fire extinguisher.
That was fortunate, said Fire Chief Mark Sgantas, because the flames were quelled before the building’s sprinkler system went off. The building, home to Stowe Free Library and the Helen Day Art Center, has been closed since December, when a faulty sprinkler caused extensive water damage throughout the structure. Walls, mechanical systems, rugs, furniture and books have all had to be replaced.
When the Morristown Fire Department arrived, Walker made tracks for the building at 638 S. Main St., which was engulfed in flames.
“There was a heavy fire in the rear of the building,” Walker said.
Firefighters initially thought they could go inside the building and fight the fire from there, going on the offensive, but Walker decided that was too dangerous.
“There was a partial roof collapse, so obviously, that’s a big concern. We wanted to make sure none of the firefighters were injured in fighting the fire,” he said.
Firefighters battled the blaze on South Main Street until 7 a.m.; Route 100 was closed until then, he said.
Nobody was injured in either fire.
Waterbury, Elmore and Hyde Park fire departments also responded.
Five businesses — DeNoia’s Dry Cleaning, Uncle George’s Flowers, LeBeau Kitchens and Baths, Lush Salon and Boutique, and Ross Environmental Associates — operated in the Stoware Common building.
Fire investigators say the building is a total loss.
“Pretty much all five of us businesses are toast,” said Lynn LeBeau, who owns LeBeau Kitchens and Baths.
She hadn’t opened that location yet; she was planning to open May 1, and has had a showroom in her home.
“It’s very sad that we had to lose it all when we were planning to open in a couple of weeks,” she said.
She says she has a plan up her sleeve to open her business in Stowe, and hopes it will work out.
Karen Fahey Ross said her husband, Bob Ross, who owns Ross Environmental Associates, will move into Stowe Office Share, which Fahey Ross owns.
“We’re just sort of looking at it in the best light possible,” Fahey Ross said.
Jamie Dragon Davis, owner of Lush Salon and Boutique, expressed on Facebook her gratitude that no one was hurt in the fire.
“My heart goes out to these other business owners as well as my landlords. This is such a devastating loss for all of us as the building is a complete loss,” Davis wrote.
Marie DeNoia, who co-owns DeNoia Dry Cleaners, says the dry cleaning company has been in business in Stowe for 35 years.
The South Main shop was DeNoia’s Dry Cleaners’ first location. The company didn’t clean clothes there; it picked up drop-offs twice a day and the cleaning took place at its Morrisville location.
DeNoia said she’s scouting for a new home for the business.
“We are diligently in the process of getting ourselves back into a space so that we can resume our Stowe operation. We do have our van that we’ve always done pickup and delivery service, so we’re telling our customers that we can come to them,” DeNoia said.
“It’s been just overwhelming, to say the least.”
Ute Beede, who owns Uncle George’s Flowers, could not be reached for comment.
Steve Berson owns four of the units that made up the building; Ross owns the fifth.
Combined, the building was worth $634,500, according to Stowe assessor Tim Morrissey.
Berson said as soon as the tax adjusters are finished evaluating the damage, he plans to remove the building and rebuild.
“I’d like to get it down as quickly as possible, and rebuild,” Berson said.
“When you get a call at two o’clock in the morning, it’s never good news. I picked up the phone and learned about the fire. It’s a shock,” he said.
Major loss for theater guild
The fire was devastating to the Stowe Theatre Guild, which has rented the basement space at 638 S. Main St. for three years to store set pieces, furniture, props and costumes, all of which were destroyed, said board president Glenn Brown.
When Brown got to the ruins, he found 3 and a half inches of water on the floor, soaking plywood flats, brightly colored costumes and props the guild has used over and over again.
“All of our flats and scenery were completely covered in fire retardant and water that was still dripping from the ceiling. Most of our costumes were located in a section of the building which had a second roof to it, between the roof that was up there. Luckily, they were not completely destroyed,” Brown said. “There is an excessive amount of smoke and chemical smell in them that we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to get out.”
Right now, he’s considering all the nonprofit’s equipment a total loss.
“It’s years of costumes and years of set pieces and things that have sentimental value. Yes, they are things, and they can be replaced, and we did have insurance, but we’ve been in the theater since 1995,” and the loss is personal as well as professional to Brown.
“It’s pretty devastating,” he said, though the guild plans to stage its four summer shows as scheduled.
Phil Joyce owns Little River Inn, right next to the Stoware building, and says he slept through the initial firefighting, waking at about 4 a.m.
He says when he went outside, he saw about 25 firefighters from several departments, who by then were helping clean up the scene, and a few other bystanders.
Fire investigators don’t yet know the cause of the fire, but Vermont State Police public information officer Adam Silverman says it’s being considered suspicious.
That’s where most fire investigations start, Silverman said.
“Whenever you have a situation where you’ve got two fires that started within a few minutes of one another and a fairly short distance apart, that automatically is a suspicious circumstance. You have to start from a place where you consider it suspicious and then work backward until and unless you can rule it out,” Silverman said.
“They think it was a set fire, and they think whoever set it probably set both of them. Nobody knows that for sure,” LeBeau said.
“The fact that it could possibly be somebody that had intentionally set it, and then the fires that have occurred in the past, obviously makes people very uncomfortable,” Joyce said.
The fire and the flood
All the Stowe Free Library and the Helen Day Art Center are missing is a plague of locusts.
They share the building at 90 Pond St., but had to move out Dec. 10 when the sprinkler system malfunctioned and filled the building with about 10 inches of water, running for about half an hour before the Stowe Fire Department shut it off.
Fortunately, on Saturday, Walker was able to put out the fire before the sprinklers ran again, said Town Manager Charles Safford.
It was “something that could have been much, much worse,” Safford said. “People owe him a debt of gratitude for his volunteering to serve, and his knowing what to do, and his quick response.”
Damage to the library building is about an additional $10,000 to $20,000, said Chris Jolly, Stowe Public Works Department engineer.
Safford says the town’s insurance policy through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns will cover that damage, and the work will be done by Williston-based contractor J.A. Morrissey, who’s been restoring the building after the flood.
Jolly said ServPro, a Stowe-based company that cleaned up the water damage after the Dec. 10 flood, removed the soot from the inside of the building with specialized equipment.
The window where the fire began was installed in the early 2000s, and was not badly damaged, Jolly said.
“The flames sort of traveled up the sash, maybe 4 or 5 feet. There’s some charred wood around the immediate corner where the fire was, but all things considered, it’s pretty minimal physical damage,” he said.