Investigators seek cause of Saratoga Springs fire
Victims return to rowhouses to salvage belongings
SARATOGA SPRINGS Residents on Monday retrieved belongings from the remains of four burned-out rowhouses on Woodlawn Avenue as fire investigators searched for a cause of Sunday morning’s blaze.
Peter Shaw, assistant chief of the Saratoga Springs Fire Department, said he hoped county fire investigators would know the cause by the end of this week. So far, authorities do not believe the fire to be suspicious.
On Monday, a company erected a tall chain-link fence on the sidewalk in front of the brownstones to keep people out. That block of Woodlawn Avenue remains closed, and officials are unsure when it will be reopened.
Other than taking down an unstable portion of the rear of the building where the fire is believed to have started, demolition had not yet begun on the rowhouses Monday afternoon. Shaw said he expects demolition of the charred remains of 102, 104, 106 and 108 Woodlawn Ave. to begin after the investigation is complete.
“It’s going to go quick,” Shaw said of demolition. “We want to get the road opened up. We want to get the healing process started here.”
The front of the building was spared the worst of the damage, and residents who lived in those areas were allowed to re-enter with firefighters Monday to get some belongings, Shaw said.
“We still do have some structural instability in the back of the building,” he said. “We can’t really get into some of the areas that we want to get into.”
The fire began in the rear of 108 Woodlawn. Firefighters arrived within two minutes of being called, but the fire had spread next door to 106, authorities said. It continued to spread south to 100 Woodlawn, damaging but not destroying that home.
Two cars in the parking lot behind the building caught fire, fueling the blaze.
No residents were injured, but several dozen people were displaced; the Red Cross put the figure at 36, while Mayor Scott Johnson said he heard the number is between 40 and 50.
Twenty people are staying at an emergency shelter set up in the city’s recreation center on Vanderbilt Avenue, the first time the recreation center has been used for that purpose, Johnson said.
“I believe they will be staying there probably until Wednesday,” he said.
Whether the facade of the 1880s rowhouses can be salvaged is still a question, and city officials hope it can be.
“It’s an important piece of the architectural heritage of our city,” Johnson said.
While the property lies in a national historic district, the city does not require properties there to undergo special historic review as it does in some parts of the city, said city planner Kate Maynard. Any new building proposal there would still require architectural review, which considers the mass and scale of a building but not whether design elements are historic.
The property’s Urban Residential-3 zoning permits single-family and two-family residences and also allows some other uses with a special-use permit, including private schools, bed and breakfasts and small convenience stores, Maynard said.
Multi-family residences are not permitted, though Maynard said it was difficult to say what that means to the property or whether owner Robert Israel would be allowed to replace the rowhouses as they were before the fire.
“I think there’s a lot of unknowns,” she said.
There are many unknowns for the residents, too.
On Monday, 102 Woodlawn Ave. resident Omar Bromfield shoved some salvaged belongings into black trash bags outside of the apartment where he lived for one week.
Bromfield lives in Brooklyn and is working as a pari-mutuel clerk at Saratoga Race Course, like several of the residents of the rowhouses, and doesn’t know where he will live now.
He retrieved a stereo, several toiletries and a Saratoga Race Course pilsner beer glass that was given away as a freebie at the track. His clothes that were in the apartment are wet and smell of smoke, he said, but he planned to wash them and see if he could still wear them.
“We came back to get whatever we can,” Bromfield said. He lived with two roommates.