PROVINCETOWN — Fourteen residents of the historic White Dory condo complex were displaced on the day before Thanksgiving by a fire that left one unit a total loss and blanketed the rest of the building in damaging smoke.
According to Fire Chief Michael Trovato, high winds and salt spray on the morning of Nov. 22 caused a short circuit in an outdoor outlet under a front unit of the building at 616 Commercial St., igniting a blaze that he said likely smoldered for hours in the building’s crawl space and basement before an alarm summoned the fire dept. just before noon.
Provincetown’s crew arrived at 11:53 a.m., five minutes after getting the call, and managed to put the fire out within 10 minutes. But some 50 firefighters representing mutual aid from Truro, Orleans, Harwich, and Wellfleet continued working until 7 p.m. to extinguish remaining hotspots, Trovato said, with some remaining on fire watch until 11 p.m.
One dog died in the fire, and one occupant present at the time had to evacuate.
Eleven people who live year-round in 8 units of the 16-unit building have been displaced as the damage is assessed and a timeline for repair is established, said White Dory Board of Trustees chair Rochelle Weichman. Three others, each renting units only for the winter, were also displaced by the fire.
Despite high winds blowing the fire into the basement, where a fire alarm failed to go off, a quick response from the fire dept. saved the building from more extensive damage, said resident Matt Ganas. “The building would have completely burned down if we didn’t get the response we did,” Ganas said. “We are incredibly grateful.”
Ganas is temporarily living in a family member’s cottage in the center of town with his husband, their son, who is in the fifth grade, and their dog. Through outpourings of generosity from neighbors, all 14 residents displaced by the fire have found places to stay temporarily, Ganas said.
Residents have been told it could take months before the 100-year-old complex is ready for habitation, said Weichman. “Some have housing until the end of the year, but what they will do after that, I don’t know,” she said.
Ganas said that Assistant Town Manager Dan Riviello has put displaced residents in touch with the Provincetown Housing Authority and Homeless Prevention Council’s Provincetown Community Support Liaison Ann Wood. But finding longer-term housing may mean being farther from home.
“We are hoping we don’t have to go somewhere else on the Cape, because our lives are here,” said Ganas. “We have a teacher who works at the school, we have a bus driver who works at the school. We have people who are entwined in this community.”
Assessing the Damage
The future of the White Dory is now uncertain. Weichman said that the building’s association has hired a public adjuster to work with insurance companies to establish the cost of repairs.
The high cost of materials is a concern. “Construction costs out here are unlike anywhere else,” Ganas said. “We are worried about that piece — what is the rebuild going to look like?”
According to Trovato, one unit will require complete reconstruction, and the rest will require specialized work to get rid of the smell. Electricity has been restored to most units, but the extent of structural damage to the basement is still unknown, said Weichman. Melted PVC pipes have rendered the plumbing inoperable, said Trovato.
“What is puzzling is that the fire didn’t trigger the smoke detector in the basement,” said Trovato. According to building records, electrical work that added the current fire alarm system in the building was done in 2004.
Provincetown Building Commissioner Anne Howard said that the town does not perform routine fire inspections of condominiums the way it does for licensed retail stores and hotels. According to Trovato, sales of condominium units trigger inspections, including of wiring and smoke detectors in common areas.
Fire alarm test reports conducted at the White Dory in the past decade show that the most recent test in February 2023 passed 17 fire alarm devices in the basement and laundry room. The same report listed a failed heat detector in unit 1, under which the fire originated.
Last spring, the sprinkler system at the retail store Coffey Men at 173 Commercial St. failed to turn on when a fire broke out at the property. According to Trovato, the system’s valve was “frozen shut” by corrosion, which would not have been caught in an inspection the previous May.
Trovato did not find fault with the inspections. “Unfortunately, there are times when things just don’t work,” Trovato said, adding that inspections can’t always prevent malfunctions. “Sometimes, your car breaks down on the way home from the mechanic. None of it is foolproof.”
The White Dory does not have a sprinkler system, Trovato said, because the building code requiring residences with more than two units to install sprinklers had not been established when the property was converted into condominiums.
Despite hardships for 14 Provincetown residents that may take months to end, the blow has been softened by neighbors springing into action. “There were even people standing outside the day of the fire who told us, ‘If you guys need anything, let us know,’ ” said Ganas.
“The good news in a town like this one is the care that goes on,” said Weichman.