One year later, Woodlawn Avenue still bears the scars left from the city’s worst structure fire in more than two decades.
While an investigation into the arson fire that ripped through the historic row houses quietly plods on, progress in the effort to rebuild the apartments is slowly starting to take shape on the largely dormant block. The progress, however, is largely invisible from Woodlawn Avenue since much of it is obscured by the facades.
“We’re on our way,” said building owner Robert Israel.
Crews have finished framing about two-thirds of the remaining buildings. New plumbing and electrical systems are now being installed, while work is starting on a new foundation for the two buildings that were mostly destroyed by the blaze.
Even though the buildings were insured, the fire has cost Israel hundreds of thousands of dollars. From the lost rent of the 15 units to the crippling cost of a mandated asbestos remediation of the fire debris, the financial toll the blaze has taken on Israel has been immense.
“It’s a pretty devastating thing,” he said Monday. “But you have to look at the bright side, and that is everybody got out OK.”
Fire ripped through the row houses during the pre-dawn hours of July 28, 2013, leaving more than 30 tenants homeless and severely damaging the five buildings extending down from 100 Woodlawn Ave. Though firefighters were on the scene in minutes, the house at 108 Woodlawn was almost entirely destroyed, save for its brick facade; 106 Woodlawn sustained massive damage and was left partially collapsed.
“I’m grateful we didn’t have any deaths,” Fire Chief Robert Williams said of the fire. “I’m grateful there weren’t any serious injuries — that we kept it to where it was and that we didn’t lose a city block.”
Authorities initially refused to classify the fire as suspicious and unofficial reports suggested it may have started from a faulty electrical panel. But behind the scenes, investigators moved to a swift conclusion that the fire was arson.
Investigators quickly ruled out accidental causes and instead focused on two areas where they believe accelerant was used to spread the fire. A search warrant was executed at a residence in Wilton less than a day after the fire and authorities appeared to be nearing an arrest last fall when they announced the results of their probe to the media.
But since that time, there have been no arrests made. Assistant Chief John Catone said the investigation is ongoing, yet had nothing further to release outside of what the department made public last fall.
“That’s probably the extent of what we’re going to talk about at this point,” he said.
Likewise, Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy III said some progress is being made in the case. As recently as this month, he said new leads were developed.
“It’s a tragedy for all the people who lost their homes,” he said of the fire. “Thankfully the Saratoga police continue to develop very viable leads, even over the last two or three weeks, and are coming ever closer to hopefully making an arrest.”
City officials are also learning from the fire, which was the largest in Saratoga Springs since a massive blaze reduced the Jamesway department store on West Avenue to a smoldering pile of rubble in April 1989. One lesson realized was that the water line running along Woodlawn Avenue is inadequate to combat a fire like the one touched off in the row houses.
City Engineer Tim Wales said the four-inch line posed a serious challenge for firefighters during the initial response. Though they were ultimately able to tap larger lines, he said the aged pipe certainly didn’t help the effort to save the buildings.
“It’s one of those 100-year-old pipes,” he said. “It probably has less than an inch of capacity.”
The city has included money in the 2015 capital budget to replace the line and could get started on the project sometime next spring. Meanwhile, Israel is putting in a branch line that provides enough capacity to install a sprinkler system in the row houses.