According to fire officials, the fire started in the kitchen area of the building, to the rear of the main building. The fire gained momentum when it broke into the main building and went up through open areas and an old blocked-off stairwell. “From there it mushroomed off through the top of the building,” says Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March.
The fire call was sounded shortly after 4 am. March says the first firefighters were on the scene “within a minute or two.” When March arrived on the scene seconds later, he immediately upgraded to a second alarm, calling in more manpower and apparatus from other towns, including ladder trucks from West Dover, Stratton, and Brattleboro. East Dover, Whitingham, Marlboro, and Readsboro were also called in.
Initially, firefighters mounted an interior attack of the fire, but when word came that there might be someone in an apartment in the building, it became a search and rescue effort. No one was found, and firefighters later learned that no one was in the building. But the 15 minutes spent searching the building gave the fire time to accelerate.
“When we first got on the scene there was a lot of heavy smoke, and the fire was just starting to become visible from the exterior,” March says. “When we stopped to search the building, it was coming through the roof.”
Firefighters returned to their interior attack, but conditions in the building soon became unsafe, and at about 5 am, March sounded the alarm for firefighters to withdraw from the building. March says that, although firefighters didn’t run into any significant problems during the fire, old buildings present a number of challenges. The construction of the Red Anchor was a combination of post and beam and 19th-century balloon-framing. Typically, balloon-framed buildings can be less stable during a fire, and don’t have fire stops in their wall framing, allowing fire to spread rapidly from floor to floor. “It’s an old building that has been remodeled and had several additions,” March said. “There were a lot of areas for fire to hide in.”
A traditional slate roof also poses problems for firefighters. March says the slate roof held in the heat and blocked efforts to fight the fire from above using an aerial spray from ladder trucks. But once the fire broke through the slate roof, there was more to worry about. “When you get the ladder directing water down onto the roof, slate can start shooting off the side of the building,” March said. “It’s like throwing down a saw blade, only heavier.”
When the fire was sufficiently knocked down from the exterior, firefighters re-entered the building for another interior attack, but they were withdrawn again after the blaze in the upper part of the building intensified. The blaze was finally brought under control around 7 am.
The proximity of nearby buildings also added to the danger and the difficulty of getting equipment around the building. Despite a distance of only about a dozen feet between buildings, firefighters managed to keep damage isolated to the Red Anchor – not even a scorch mark or a soot smudge showed on the two neighboring buildings. “It was definitely a challenge to keep the fire contained and not have it spread,” March says. “The weather helped, it wasn’t extremely windy, and the timely response.”
March says the company that insured the building has determined that it’s a total loss, and state fire investigators have ruled the fire accidental.
Although the current building will have to be demolished and removed, Wilmington won’t be left with a “black hole.” Owner Susan Lawrence says she’s rebuilding the Anchor. “Definitely,” she says. “This is why we hold insurance, so we can rebuild.”
Although some business owners, mindful of the current economic climate, might take the opportunity to collect their insurance and cut their losses, Lawrence says the restaurant is everything she ever worked for, and that she has a commitment to her employees and the community. “The town can’t afford to have another loss,” she says. “And it’s everybody’s favorite restaurant. We have loyal customers.”
There are no solid plans yet, but Lawrence says she intends to reproduce the original building’s character as much as possible. “We’re going to try to maintain the flavor of the Anchor, to reproduce the look of the façade,” she says, “particularly the front, with the double front porch, so it fits correctly into the village.”
Lawrence said she also intends to direct as much of the construction work as possible to local businesses. “We’ll have to find the most qualified construction company that can start as quickly as possible, but anything we can do to help the local economy by directing the work to local people, we’ll do. That’s the way we operate, and those (local people) are our customers.”
Lawrence says she doesn’t know a great deal about the history of the building. Although some have suggested that it once housed a maple syrup cannery during the mid-1800s, it served as a private residence until it was used commercially as a fish market just a few decades ago. The Dunn family was one of the last local families to live in the building. Lawrence says she plans to research the history of the building for a display in the reconstructed bar.
“It saddens me that we can’t bring back a 150-year-old building,” Lawrence says. “But the people in town have been so supportive. The people at Town Hall, Bob Rusten, the Chamber of Commerce, Laura (Sibilia), the folks at Chittenden Bank and Richards Group Insurance have been wonderful. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of support.”