- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Once the final flame of a house fire has been extinguished and the smoke has cleared, devastated homeowners are often left with a sinking feeling, wondering where to turn for help.

Jackie Sedam of Marlborough, and her parents, John and Therese Gaynor, know the feeling all too well.

In mid-November, the family’s two-story Hosmer Street house was heavily damaged after an overflowing second-floor toilet caused a small flood that shorted out the home’s electrical wiring and sparked a fire.

Sedam was home that morning and tried to put out the fire, but burned her hands in the process. She and her parents were able to escape without major injuries, but the home was not so lucky.

The upper floor had smoke and heat damage, while the main floor was destroyed, making the home uninhabitable. Seven months after the fire, some sections of the house remain boarded up.

Left with a heavily damaged home, Sedam was unsure how to move forward.

“Nobody knows what to do,” she said. “There’s no manual for that.”

The Red Cross of Central Massachusetts was on scene during the blaze and helped the family find lodging for the night and the coming days. The family planned to live away from the property, but came back one day to find items stolen from a backyard shed.

“That was a problem,” said Sedam.

The Red Cross and the family’s insurance company secured a trailer that is located on the side yard of the property. Sedam and her parents have lived in the trailer for the past few months and expect to call it home for the foreseeable future while their house is repaired.

“Thank God we camp,” Sedam said with a laugh.

The family is in the midst of repairs, which include obtaining building permits from the city, hiring a contractor and waiting while the work is completed.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “It will get better.”

Liz Jackson of Hudson was similarly distraught when her Pine Street home was destroyed by a 2012 fire that started when oil-stained rags stored in a detached garage spontaneously ignited and spread to her house.

“Obviously there’s that first wave of shock,” she said.

Jackson, her husband and three children lived in a hotel for a month before renting a house for the next nine months while their home was rebuilt.

“It takes a lot longer than people imagine,” said Jackson, whose family couldn’t remove items from the home until several months after the blaze.

The Jacksons, Gaynors and Sedam are some of the close to 100 families in central Massachusetts affected by fires each year, said Kim Goulette, executive director of the American Red Cross of Central Massachusetts.

During a blaze, fire departments contact the Red Cross to help families.

“We respond to the scene of the fire and immediately begin assisting the family or individual by providing a blanket, something for their feet, snacks and something to drink and ultimately comfort that we are there to help,” she said. “Once we are able to assess their situation, the Red Cross will provide financial support for food, clothing and shelter for the night and mental support if needed.”

The next day, volunteers continue to assist and help families begin the recovery process.

“Many times the client hasn’t been able to think clearly enough to process the next steps,” said Goulette. “This is where Red Cross volunteers assist them in finding permanent housing, connect them with other community partners for assistance with clothing, furniture, medications and ultimately help them create a plan.”

Fire officials are also part of the process. Knowing many homeowners that have been displaced by a fire are rattled and confused, the Milford Fire Department created a booklet to guide victims through the repair process.

“This is basically a series of checklists that help the people with minor things that get easily forgotten and answers some basic questions that they might have,” said Milford Fire Chief William Touhey. “We try to help the people out as best we can.”

Franklin has partnered with the Marriott Residence Inn to provide a free overnight accommodation for those displaced by fire, said Franklin Fire Chief Gary McCarrahar.

“We attempt to provide whatever support necessary to begin the process of picking up the pieces to their tragedy and moving forward,” he said.

Securing a property is a top priority to avoid looting, fire officials said.

“One of the first orders of business is to ensure the home is secured,” said Framingham Fire Chief Joseph Hicks. “Unfortunately, we live in a world where others look to take advantage of others in their time of need.”

Michael Murphy, president of Murphy Insurance Agency in Hudson, advised homeowners to contact their insurance company immediately after a blaze. The first thing Murphy encourages homeowners to do is take inventory of what was in each room of their home. He said it is a good idea for residents to do that in advance, to prepare in case of a disastrous event.

“It’s a super idea, but people haven’t done it,” said Murphy.

Hours after the fire, building inspectors assess the damage to determine the condition of the building’s electrical, plumbing and gas systems. Based on the findings, inspectors determine if the occupants of the building can go back in and continue to live there, if the property is deemed temporarily uninhabitable or a total loss, said Michael Tusino, Framingham building commissioner.

“Most of the time the conditions do not allow (residents to continue living there). However, we always try,” he said.

John Erickson, Milford’s building inspector, said nearly all fire damage will require a building permit to rebuild or renovate a damaged home.

If the building is deemed structurally unsafe, it can be ordered to be torn down the next day, which Tusino said is a rarity.

“In my 20 years as a building officer, I’ve only had to do this about four times,” he said. “In most cases, the fire-damaged building can remain in place as long as it is made secure and closed to the weather, which would satisfy the building code.”

The owners of a home on Brooks Road in Sudbury that was heavily damaged during a January fire are proposing to demolish the structure and rebuild, said Sudbury Building Inspector Mark Herwick.

A multi-family home on Weybosset Avenue in Framingham that was gutted by an early morning fire in April has been secured, but has not yet been torn down, said Tusino.

In some cases, the burned-out structure remains standing for too long before the insurance companies and homeowners come to an agreement on a payout, angering neighbors.

Marlborough City Councilor Peter Juaire requested the city create an ordinance to have structures heavily damaged by disasters cleaned up faster after a burned out home on Broad Street stood for nine months before it was eventually demolished.

In March 2015, a massive fire tore through a two-and-a-half story home on Broad Street, causing the roof to collapse and the home to be deemed a total loss. Throughout the nine months the charred home stood, neighbors smelled burning charcoal when they opened their doors and windows and had to view the remains of the home.

Code Enforcement Officer Pam Wilderman said the delay in the demolition of that home came because of difficulties in the negotiations between the homeowner and insurance company. The process only sped up when Wilderman began issuing fines as part of the city’s blight ordinance.

As part of a potential ordinance, Wilderman suggested requiring homeowners to notify the Building Department of their insurance company’s contact information within days of a disaster and provide an update every 30 days on where they stand with their insurance companies.

Wilderman stressed the need for homeowners to keep a close eye on their properties to avoid fires.

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Information from: MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.), http://www.metrowestdailynews.com

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