New Square fire too close a call

Journal News Editorial
(Original Publication: February 8, 2007)

It's been called a miracle that no residents were hurt when a raging fire destroyed two multi-family dwellings on Clinton Lane in New Square yesterday.

So many were left homeless by the early-morning blaze. How many more miracles are left in New Square, a perennial concern of firefighters?

These challenges face New Square:

- The densly populated village has narrow streets, with cars allowed to park on both sides. Fire trucks are impaired from getting to a fire scene quickly.

- Water pressure is a continual problem in the village and the area around it. In fact, the Town of Ramapo and the county Fire Chiefs' Association weighed in during United Water's latest rate hike hearing with a plea to improve conditions so their hydrants can be in better working condition.

In November, we saw the problem in action, when two families were left homeless in a fire in which firefighters struggled to hold flames in check because of inadequate water pressure. The water pressure was so low at one point that the firefighters had to link three hydrants in order to access enough water.

- State fire codes were only adopted by the village last year, and only then under pressure from the state. That means structures like this, built before New Square adopted the state code, are unlikely to meet such basic requirements as sprinklers for three-story buildings.

Truly, calling this ferocious fire's quick discovery by a passerby a miracle is in no way hyperbole.

"If it was windy, the scenario could have been much, much different," Rockland County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren said. As it was, the fire jumped a 10-foot alley and ignited the building next-door. "It's not fair to the people who are living there."

So many risks
Clinton Lane condominiums were testaments to how not to build. Outdoor boiler rooms and big wooden decks near fire walls add up to risk factors for a fire to start and spread rapidly. Also, fire walls were covered with vinyl siding, which undermines their original purpose.

Fire officials have long struggled to make headway in the Hasidic Jewish village. The officials' entreaties for help from village officials were met with comments downplaying the problem. The state has been called on, and within the last four years, the Department of State's Division of Code Enforcement and Administration began monitoring New Square. The village has pledged to pay closer attention to enforcing fire and building codes. Things have been moving in the right direction. Routine fire inspections are taking place.

In a village that's growing this rapidly (from 2,605 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census, to 5,920 in 2004), building will surely progress just as rapidly to keep up. The village now needs to make up for loose building codes and lax enforcement. Past problems must be addressed, and present codes must be enforced. Tovi Mermelstein, who was on the fire scene soon after it was reported, observed, "God does everything for a reason . . . There are no coincidences."