PROVINCETOWN — The winter storm of Dec. 18, 2023 that caused flooding up and down the Atlantic Coast and saltwater intrusions in Provincetown’s East End was also the cause of a house fire that destroyed Dawn Walsh’s apartment at 674A Commercial St., said Fire Chief Mike Trovato.
The intense winds of that storm dislodged power lines all over town, Trovato said, and almost certainly caused a surge of power into Walsh’s apartment that lit her appliances on fire.
“We had high sustained winds for hours, and we must have had 20 calls for pole fires,” Trovato said. “We were at the Sandcastle Inn fighting a pole fire when we got the call for 674 Commercial St. Luckily, the ladder truck was with me at the Sandcastle, because when we got to the structure fire the second floor was fully involved, and the high winds were pushing it out both sides of the building.”
Trovato said that both neighboring buildings were close to catching fire.
“At the building on the left side, the dryer vent had melted right off and the shingles were starting to catch, and the building on the right side, all the paint was bubbling off the deck rails,” the chief said. Firefighters hosed down the two buildings and then put water into the second-story apartment, he said.
High winds can shake loose the lines to the power pole, Trovato said, leading to a surge of 220-volt electricity into appliances that operate on 110 volts.
The damage can take place at the pole or where the wires enter the house. Trovato said he was confident the wires into the house had come loose in the storm because he found important electrical components on the ground in front of the house.
The fire at 674A Commercial came almost exactly one month after another storm with strong winds and salt spray caused an electrical fire at the White Dory condo complex at 616 Commercial St., displacing 14 people from their homes just before Thanksgiving.
That fire, on Nov. 22, began when waves breaking on the other side of the street created enough saltwater spray to short-circuit an outdoor outlet near the basement, Trovato said.
“What happened at the White Dory is that when you have winds and high tide like that, the waves are breaking right over Commercial Street,” he said. “I had seaweed in my truck from those waves.”
The chief also said a pole in front of John’s Footlong hot dog stand in Lopes Square has dropped its wires to the ground at least three times in the last three or four years.
“When you get winds like that, it’s pretty common for the wires to jump off the insulators on the top” and either fall to the ground or ignite the crossbeam of the pole, Trovato said. Wires can also break from corrosion. The area around MacMillan Pier “takes a tremendous beating from salt air and high wind,” Trovato said.
“I don’t know what else Eversource could do to make these lines more durable,” he said. “That’s beyond my expertise.”
A Lost Home
During the storm, Dawn Walsh was at work in Wellfleet, where she is executive director of the Lily House, a community home that helps terminally ill people live and die in comfort.
“Every single thing I owned” was lost in the fire, Walsh said, “but I’ve been able to stay pretty centered and grounded in the loss.
“The work I do is to help people at the end of life let go,” Walsh said. “All things are impermanent, and I’m experiencing that.”
An online fundraiser for Walsh started by a friend after the fire raised $43,000, 20 percent of which will go to the Lily House, which Walsh co-founded. “The community has been exceedingly generous,” Walsh said.
Walsh also said that impermanence is a lens with which to understand climate change and its effects on the town — including these fire-starting windstorms.
“Climate change forces a letting go of what we knew and what we thought we knew,” Walsh said. “The entire ecosystem is changing and morphing and ending and recreating. It’s a maze of interconnectedness, and it’s all changing very quickly.
“What happened at 674 Commercial is definitely part of a systemic situation,” she added, “and it’s good for the public to be aware of the connection.”