UPDATED July 28: The Chestnut Manor fire continues to be a smoldering issue for the Arlington Housing Authority long after the embers from that early morning January blaze were extinguished.
The fire in the third-floor corner apartment of the seven-story 100-unit building claimed the life of resident Bridget Doyle, 88, and injured her neighbor Margaret Sheehan, 72, in whose unit the fire started.
Sheehan was able to exit her burning bedroom and call 9-1-1 from her outdoor porch in 13-degree weather at 4:09 a.m.
In June, the state's Department of Fire Services released its findings more than six months after YourArlington submitted a public-records request for the information.
The heavily redacted report stated that the cause of the “fire is being ruled unintentional/accidental, likely a malfunction of the baseboard heater or combustible materials located too close to the baseboard heating,” which corresponds to the initial on-site findings.
In a post-fire interview conducted with Sheehan, the report notes that “she has resided at the apartment for over 10 years. She stated that she put the bedroom heat on (electric baseboard) at approximately 9:30 p.m. She stated it was the first time she had put the heat on in her bedroom this cold season. The bedroom heat was on a separate switch located on a small circuit breaker panel behind the main apartment door.”
Concerns with electrical panels
The September Preventative Maintenance Task checklist for the housing authority lists, “Turn on heating systems Sept. 15.” The baseboard heating is an additional heating source that draws its power from the electrical panel noted in the report. There is no corresponding maintenance checklist for the individual unit electrical panels, but, following the fire, the town’s electrical inspectors conducted testing in the building.
In his February board meeting report, Executive Director Jack Nagle said, “The town’s electrical inspectors confirmed that the busbar testing was a success, and has indicated that the results were good.”
Busbar testing is a routine diagnostic test performed on circuit breakers inside electrical panels to measure power distribution and circuit-breaker integrity. Circuit-breaker failure – with or without being tripped - can be a cause of fire.
YourArlington reached out to then-Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine as to why a town department was conducting electrical inspection work on a state-owned and -managed property that was the scene of a fatal fire but did not receive a response before he left his position in June.
Both Chestnut Manor and the Hauser Building are equipped with Federal Pacific electrical panels. These panels were widely installed in residential and commercial buildings from the 1950s until the 1980s. According to the town’s property records, Chestnut was built in 1966, and Hauser was constructed in 1975. Hauser is a multistory complex for the elderly and disabled located in Arlington Heights.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission originally issued a safety notice on the panels in 1983, and a revised guidance in 2011.
CPA emergency funding to replace panels
One month after the Chestnut Manor fire, and because of an incident with a fire panel at another of its properties, the Hauser Building, the authority submitted a special application to the Community Preservation Act Committee for consideration of funding for the replacement of the electrical panels at the Heights property.
“There was a concern related to the electrical panels,” Nagle said during the March 16 meeting of the housing authority board. “That [Federal Pacific] panel in question has been replaced. We did request emergency funding through the CPA that will help us move forward with this project.”
The CPA meeting minutes from February indicate that the committee members – who include AHA commissioner Jo Anne Preston – agreed that replacing the electrical panels in the Hauser Building, an AHA property, “may be seen outside the standard definition of preservation, [however] since preservation is the protection of physical buildings from harms, it falls into the preservation category.”
The CPA committee unanimously voted to approve the $200,000 request. The funding passed Town Meeting in June, and it was accepted by the housing authority board at its July meeting. This funding is in addition to the $600,000 the CPA awarded the housing authority for the Menotomy Manor family housing window-replacement project.
18 units damaged will remain unoccupied until 2023
In board meetings subsequent to the deadly fire, Ellen Leigh, the secretary of the building’s tenant association, complained about “mice chewing away at the baseboards heaters” and the maintenance staff plugging the holes with steel wool.
The fire marshal report did not give any indication of mice activity contributing to the fire’s cause.
In conclusion, Justin Peledge, part of the Fire Investigation North Team with the Massachusetts State Police, wrote that “there is no evidence to suggest criminal activity at this time. I respectfully request this case be closed pending any new information that may warrant its reopening.”
Eighteen units at Chestnut Manor were damaged by a combination of fire, smoke and water, and they remain unoccupied as of this report. Nagle told the board that he hoped construction renovations would be completed for occupancy by next January.
Other fire-project approvals
In other fire business, the housing authority board voted to accept $350,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding for the Hauser Building Fire Alarm project.
The board also approved an engineer designer contract in the amount of $31,000 for the Drake Village cottage fire alarm and detector project, which will link the community directly to the fire department response system as is the case with the other senior housing properties.
The board also approved the final certificate of completion for the fire pump replacement project at Winslow Towers.
More board business
The board unanimously approved a fair-housing marketing plan mandated by the Department of Housing and Community Development, to increase information to residents of diverse backgrounds on how to apply for AHA public housing.
The board is scheduled to return to its usual Wednesday night meeting schedule on Aug. 17. The 7 p.m. meeting will also mark the resumption of in-person meetings, with the meeting location to be announced.
This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Melanie Gilbert was published Wednesday, July 27, 2022. It was updated July 28, to correct the fire agency involved to the state.
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