Apartment Fires Displace Vermonters and Highlight Need for Thorough Inspection

Aug 9, 2013

Every year, according to the Fire Marshal’s report, fire strikes at least 2,000 buildings in Vermont. While the majority of these fires damage single family homes, about one fourth of the blazes rip through apartment buildings. Unlike private homes, those public spaces are subject to inspection by the state or the municipality.

In many towns, the inspections are done by health officers. Statewide, non-emergency building inspections have increased since 2001, when the state logged 9,400 inspections. In 2012, there were 16, 793.   But even though the number of inspections has risen, not every structure due for inspection gets an annual visit.  In fact, many of the apartment buildings destroyed by fire had not been inspected in several years. That’s because the state’s priority is to make sure that all new buildings meet fire codes in order for construction to proceed.

The standards for new construction are more stringent than those for older buildings. But about 30 percent of Vermont’s housing stock was built before 1940. That means that the oldest, most fire prone buildings often go without inspection for years, unless a tenant makes a complaint.

Across Vermont, how fireproof a building is can depend on its location, local ordinances, and the availability of inspectors. In general, Burlington has stricter codes and more frequent inspections than buildings in more rural areas.

Fire safety officials are pleased that there was a decrease in fire deaths in Vermont last year, only 6, down from 8 in 2008, but they also acknowledge that many of  Vermont’s apartment buildings are not as fireproof as they should be. Tenants continue to be at risk, and many are at least temporarily displaced by fires. Over the past five years, for example, were major apartment fires in St. Johnsbury, Springfield, Brattleboro, Enosburg, Canaan, Barre, and Morristown. More recently,  fire struck a four-unit apartment building in Winooski.  

Burlington has been trying to strengthen its inspection program to make its rental units more fireproof or easier to evacuate during a fire. Jessica Radbord, a lawyer for Vermont Legal Aid, says if a tenant thinks their housing isn’t up to code, they should call their landlord firstSt. Johnsbury has been especially hard hit in the last five years with one blaze that left a huge hole in the downtown area. Springfield is slowly rising from the ashes after a block at the center of town was totally destroyed by fire.

VPR looks at these issues in our week-long series Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires. Explore the series online or hear it beginning Monday August 12 at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.