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State calls heaters 'top cause of building fires.'

The Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) discussed its space-heater policy just days before a fire, suspected to have been sparked by an electric  heater, ripped through a third-floor unit at Chestnut Manor, causing the death of one resident and injury to another.

The seven-story, 100-unit building – home to elderly and disabled Arlington residents – sustained significant smoke and water damage from the early-morning blaze on Saturday, Jan. 22, with 16 residents displaced while their units are cleaned and repaired.

A state investigation is ongoing into the cause of the blaze. According to the Town of Arlington's property records for Chestnut Manor, the building has radiant electric heat, which is typically hardwired and mounted along the baseboard walls. Wall-mounted units have a high heat output with low surface temperatures. It's not clear whether the fire was sparked from the building's fixed unit or a stand-alone, personal-use electric space heater. 

Executive Director Jack Nagle wrote in an email to YourArlington that "we are actively working with the state and local agencies related to the fire. We are still waiting for a report from the Arlington Fire Department's Fire Prevention Office."

The housing authority commissioners and executive staff met that previous Tuesday, Jan. 18, for the first public board meeting of the new year, with Nagle leading the discussion including item #13 – Approval of Space Heater Policy.

Nagle stated that the Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that oversees the state’s public-housing programs and local housing authorities, had put out guidance last year related to space heaters, citing findings that the “use of space heaters are a top cause of building fires and pose a serious risk for tenants and property.”

According to the state’s Office of the Fire Marshal, although heater fires are rare, they can be deadly. There were 148 space-heater fires reported between 2010 and 2019, which “caused two civilian deaths, 16 injuries, 28 fire-service injuries and an estimated dollar loss of $10.9 million. The average dollar loss for a space heater fire is $73,458.”

Board passes space-heater policy 

The housing authority’s space-heater policy, passed unanimously by the board, prohibits residents from using a space heater unless approved by the authority.

“Given the fire that happened in the Bronx, and the fire that happened in Philadelphia, it’s even more important for us to have a policy that provides some parameters around space heaters . .  . such as proper and safe usage so that we can ensure that our residents are being safe,” Nagle said during the meeting.

Nagle was referencing the Jan. 5 fire in a scattered-site public-housing property in Philadelphia that killed 12 family members, and the Jan. 9, Bronx, New York building fire - caused by a space heater – that killed 17 people. Eight children died in each of the two fires.

"We are still in the proces of issuing [the space-heater policy] out to residents," wrote Nagle.

Ongoing fire investigation, costs 

The cause of the Chestnut Manor fire is still being investigated by the State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit to determine whether the electric heater - baseboard mounted or portable - malfunctioned or was in too close proximity to combustible items.

The housing authority is self-insured, and property damage figures are not yet available, pending the completion of the state’s investigation. In addition to the loss of life and injury, the displacement on the elderly residents will be costly in both personal and financial terms.

        "We are actively working with the state and local agencies related to the fire," Nagle wrote. "[The AHA] is setting up a task force that will involve multiple agencies [including] Arlington's Health and Human Services, the Somerville Homeless Coalition and Minuteman Senior Services, and we hope to start relocating residents in the coming days."

The Department of Health and Human Services, through the Council on Aging has established a donation fund to support the residents affected by the fire. Funds will be used to rehouse residents that have been displaced and to replace items lost in the fire. The Council on Aging is coordinating resources to support the needs of residents with the Arlington Housing Authority. To donate to the Chestnut Manor Relief Fund, click here >>

Drafty windows, Arctic air, heating problems 

Chestnut Manor, which was built in 1965, is budgeted for a $400,000 window and balcony slider-door replacement project starting in fiscal 2026, but Vice Chair Jo Anne Preston said in Tuesday's meeting tthat if “there’s some draft coming from somewhere that some maintenance person could fix, then there’d be no need for a space heater.” Board Chair Brian Connor agreed and suggested that “plastic wrap could seal windows and doors” that are drafty or won’t close properly. “There are a lot of things we can do,” and that residents need to “speak up.”

Drafty and energy-inefficient windows have been a community-wide concern, with Menotomy Manor residents complaining about their windows from 1985 causing cold homes and high heating bills. The family-housing complex in East Arlington is scheduled to receive $2 million from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation to address the longstanding problem. Residents in the buildings for the elderly and disabled do not pay gas or electric utility costs.

The AHA inspected resident units in all the properties - including Chestnut Manor - this past summer and fall. The Preventative Maintenance Tasks for September shows a 14-point check list including #3 - Turn on heating systems September 15, and general tasks related to "clean and replace filters for hot-air systems at all buildings as needed," and "clean heater vents in all common areas." There was no task listed for electric heating element maintenance. 

Cigarette sparked fire in 2020 

In 2020, Chestnut Manor’s third floor was also the scene of a fire started by a cigarette. No injuries were reported, although there was water damage to the building. The housing authority passed a nonsmoking policy in 2015, which banned smoking in the units and all common areas both inside and outside the property. A violation of the no-smoking policy is considered a breach of the lease and can result in an eviction.

However, a resident who asked to remain anonymous, said that the ban is poorly enforced, with residents still smoking in their units.

Next steps 

The space-heater policy is one of several updates underway to the authority’s policies and procedure manual, which was last completed in 2012.

Strengthening community engagement is an ongoing board priority. A Chestnut Manor tenant representative has not reported to the board meetings for several years, and Drake Village (the Drake cottages and Hauser building residents) has been without a functioning association since July. Only Jen Hernandez, the president of the newly formed Menotomy Manor tenants’ association, attended Tuesday’s board meeting.

Other agenda items 

Ironically, on Tuesday, the board approved the Certificate of Final Completion for the $150,000 Chestnut Manor balcony resurfacing project. On Saturday, several of the new balconies were covered in ice and soot. 

Nov. 22, 2021: Housing authority restructures staff as key personnel retire

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Melanie Gilbert, was published Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.