An electrical failure in a first floor showroom is to blame for the fire that gutted Warren Furniture in Milford on Dec. 26, the state fire marshal’s office announced today.
Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal B. Scott Bullock also said the nearly 100-year-old building was not required to have a fire alarm, which could have alerted emergency responders to the blaze before it engulfed the three-story structure.
“Those requirements fall back to when a building is built, and in this case, state codes for fire protection didn’t even exist when this building was constructed,” Bullock said. “The only time older commercial buildings are required to upgrade is when there are improvements made to 50 percent or more of the building and over the years that just never happened.”
Warren Furniture owner Brett Warren said that while he added emergency lights and installed fire extinguishers on each floor of the building over the years, he never saw much need to install smoke detectors.
“It’s not like we had a hundred customers at one time,” he said. “Plus furniture smoulders before it bursts into flames, so I figured whoever was here, which was usually just me, would be able to get out in time if there was a fire.”
Bullock said the absence of fire alarms combined with the location of the electrical failure and the type of building construction likely means the fire burned for an “extended time” before it was discovered by a passerby just after 9 p.m.
It took about 50 firefighters from Carlisle Fire Company and several area fire departments nearly three hours to bring the blaze under control. Emergency responders conducted overhaul and salvage operations at 100 S. Walnut St. until about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 27.
Deputy state fire marshals from Kent and Sussex counties then conducted nearly 12 hours of fire scene investigation before announcing the cause today, Bullock said.
“We found evidence of water leaks and wood rot, so it’s possible that might have been a factor in the electrical failure,” Bullock said. “It’s just speculation because we can’t prove it contributed to the cause, but we did have a hard, driving rain that night, which could have placed water somewhere that it didn’t usually go.”
While the age of the building meant fire alarms were not required, Bullock said its age also might have been what kept the structure standing.
“You don’t see the quality of building materials in buildings today that you see in older ones like this one, because they’re just too expensive,” he said. “And without those structural elements, I’m not sure the building would have survived the fire.”
The state fire marshal’s office has estimated the damage to the building at about $750,000.
Warren, however, said he’s still waiting to hear an estimate for how much it would cost to repair the building that has housed his family’s furniture store since 1924.
“I’d still like to rebuild, but I don’t know yet what the money situation is,” he said. “We might have to knock it down if we can’t afford to bring it back to what it was, plus the cost of bringing it up to today’s codes. Right now, there’s nothing I can really do except hope for the best.”