It’s been an exhausting week for Chilmark fire chief David Norton, but during a brief respite at the station yesterday, he took a few minutes to look back on the events, Monday afternoon that are now well recorded in newspapers and cameras around the Island and beyond.
“Menemsha will always be a powder keg to me,” said the fire chief. Those may not be particularly comforting words after one of the worst fires in the town’s history, but as Mr. Norton sees it the very things that make Menemsha Menemsha — its picturesque and relatively inaccessible cul de sac, its fishing shack kindling and a preponderance of propane, gasoline and diesel as well as creosote-soaked dock work — will make the village the bane of fire chiefs for years to come.
“It’s a small area with a lot of fuel in it,” he said.
Such future concerns aside, Mr. Norton was extremely impressed with Monday’s response, both from emergency services as well as private citizens and businesses.
“It was great. I just can’t think of enough people to thank,” he said.
In particular Mr. Norton cited fire and police departments from around the Island for commendation, as well as the Coast Guard and the state fire marshal who arrived on the scene in the early evening. Even the shellfish department pitched in to loan a boat to help extinguish lingering hot spots the following day.
“We set up a deck gun on the drive-on dock and just lobbed the water as far as we could, and the Coast Guard had a hand line off their 47-footer trying to do what they could. The Oak Bluffs fire rescue boat, too, was a godsend,” he said, referring to a vessel purchased a few years ago with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. By the end of the day an additional fire rescue boat had arrived from Falmouth to help battle the flames.
Before anything else, though, one of Mr. Norton’s primary tasks was isolating the fishing village.
“If anything goes wrong at Menemsha the first thing you do is have the top of the hill shut right off and don’t let anybody in, I don’t care who they are,” he said. “It’s a one-way street in and out, so even the smallest fire can be a major pain as far as traffic is concerned. The last thing we needed were gawkers or tourists.”
Other complicating factors unique to Menemsha included the creosote-treated piers, which provided a slow and steady source of fuel that was difficult to conquer. Environmental regulations today prohibit the use of creosote in piers, Mr. Norton said, but the ill-fated drive-on pier was built before such rules were put in place. Still, he said, even he was surprised that it went up as quick as it did.
Even from his command post atop the bluff, Mr. Norton could not escape the oppressive heat of the flames. “It was intense,” he said.
“I told the harbor master that anyone he knew that was eating smoke should go down to the hospital and get checked out to make sure their lungs are clear, because it doesn’t take much,” he said. “Even when I was walking around with the investigators I inhaled a little smoke and it irritated the [expletive deleted] out of me.”
One of the many local businesses that made Mr. Norton’s job easier was the Home Port restaurant, whose chefs kept first responders well fed and hydrated during their arduous day.
“They came out with platters of this and platters of that,” the chief said. “When we were having our powwow with the fire marshal and the Coast Guard, they sat us down with this big old plate of ribs.” The Home Port also supplied juice and water to weary firefighters who served overnight shifts monitoring the scene after it had been soaked and secured.
“At the end of the day all the guys were tired,” said Mr. Norton, who said he has finally gotten a couple nights of good sleep.
And despite what is being widely hailed as an emergency response success, Mr. Norton also registered his ongoing frustration with Chilmark infrastructure — deficiencies he says complicated the efforts of his department on Monday.
“For a number of years it’s been clear that we need to establish more water sources,” he said. “Certainly around the harbor we have to. We also need to have cell phone service. We spent all Monday on the radios but it might be nice to be able to use a phone from time to time.
“We’ll always be 25 years behind the times. That’s why people like it down here. That’s what makes it so hard for me to do my job.”