House fires are tragic at any time of the year, but winter fires that leave the inhabitants homeless can be especially devastating.  

A recent spate of house fires in North Adams has been exacerbated by a lack of functioning fire hydrants in the city. Faulty fire hydrants have been an issue for years, but the problem is receiving renewed attention as one of the coldest winters in several years grips Massachusetts. 

Connecting Point‘s Brian Sullivan traveled to the northern Berkshires to find out how the state’s smallest city plans to tackle the problem. 


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: House fires are tragic at any time of the year, but winter fires that leave the inhabitants homeless can be especially devastating. And what’s been making matters worse for the residents of North Adams during a recent spate of house fires, has been a lack of functioning hydrants.

It’s been an issue for several years, but has received renewed attention as the state grapples with one of its coldest winters in some time. Connecting Point’s. Brian Sullivan traveled to the northern Berkshires to find out how the state’s smallest city plans to tackle the problem.

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: Fire hydrants along the side of the road may be as common a sight as the vehicles that drive past them.

A safe assumption for most of us when we see them is that in the event of an emergency, a firefighter will be able to remove the steamer cap, one of the side caps, attach a hose to the apparatus, and eventually get water to flow out at a high enough velocity to quickly extinguish a fire. There will always be times when the call comes in too late and the structure can’t be saved. But what about when the unthinkable happens and the hydrant itself doesn’t even work?

In recent years, this has been a recurring theme in North Adams. Just within the three roads that housed the 96 units of Greylock Valley Apartments, there are three non-functioning hydrants, one of them directly across the street from a fire that destroyed Apartment 193 in January of 2021.

All six units now will likely have to be leveled due to the damage. Elsewhere in town, this hole in the ground and pile of rubble are all the remains of a family home that stood here for decades on the corner of Veazey and School streets. Also on the corner, this non-functioning hydrant.

Jason Laforest, North Adams City Council: So what happened? North Adams, like many cities and towns across Massachusetts, has had to make very difficult budget cuts over the last couple of decades due to decrease in funding from the state and federal government.

One of those losses has been in our fire hydrants and fire hydrant infrastructure. And unfortunately, that’s resulted in several fires in the last few months where the fire department has not been able to access a working fire hydrant in the middle of a potentially catastrophic fire.

Brian Sullivan: Now, these wrapped up hydrants dot the sides of the road like big orange Post-it notes, possibly bittersweet reminders to the firefighters of the units that they can and can’t use in the event of an emergency.

The department declined comment, though, when we reached out to them, but we were able to meet up with the widow of someone who served on the department for the better part of three decades. She had no problem disclosing her frustration with the sight of these orange bags.

Cheryl Lefave, North Adams Resident: I saw two today on my way home from work.

And I thought, why is this happening? Why– while I understand the financial aspects and setting a precedent for going forward with the project, it’s an immediate concern.

Brian Sullivan: Much of North Adams is comprised of neighborhoods like those that surround Windsor Lake. Hilly, lots of old houses close to each other, hopefully with a working hydrant nearby. Like this one on Walker Street, located only a few hundred yards from the house that caught fire in late February.

A street like this one can be found just about anywhere in the northern Berkshires. Older homes with possibly outdated electric and heat during cold New England winters become prime targets for house fires. So having functioning hydrants within proximity may seem like an issue of common sense. But in North Adams, it’s become an issue of dollars and cents.

Jason Laforest: At this point, it’s going to have to take a dedicated infrastructure plan to bring all of those non-working hydrants up to working order. It’s going to take capital and the city is going to need to raise that revenue through state and federal grant money.