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Dec 28, 2019 12:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Officials Eye Gas Fireplace As Origin Of Hearst Mansion Fire In Water Mill

Fire destroyed a Water Mill mansion on Saturday morning. The house was on Little Noyac Path, which does not have fire hydrants, forcing fire crews from throughout the South Fork to rely on tanker trucks to supply the water needed to fight the flames.  Michael Wright
Jan 13, 2020 12:37 PM

Investigators say they are looking into whether a gas fireplace in a second-floor bedroom was the culprit in the December 28 fire that tore through a 16,000-square-foot mansion owned by publishing heiress Anne Hearst, sending firefighters from fire departments through the South Fork streaming into northern Water Mill.

Southampton Town Fire Marshal Brian Williams said that the owners of the home have told fire marshals that the fire first showed in the mammoth home’s master bedroom, near a fireplace.

Mr. Williams, who is leading the investigation, said that the definitive cause of the fire has not yet been identified, but it does seem to have started inside the wall behind the master bedroom fireplace and spread from there into the building’s attic, where it spread and burned through the building.

The gas fireplace was a more recent upgrade of an original wood-burning fireplace that was in the bedroom when the house was built, Mr. Williams noted.

Several people, including Ms. Hearst, were in the house when the fire broke out, shortly after 8 a.m. All got out safely.

The fire presented responding firefighters with a particularly difficult task because the mansion sits down a long driveway off Little Noyac Path, a narrow, curving road lined with an ever-growing supply of large homes that has no water mains or fire hydrants on it.

“The worst part was that there is no water up there, so we had to do a tanking operation, and we’re faced with a 15,000-square-foot house, so it needed a lot of water,” Bridgehampton Fire Chief Mark Balserus said.

With flames eating through the roof of the house and the rising pillar of smoke visible from downtown Bridgehampton, firefighters and tanker trucks from the volunteer fire departments in Bridgehampton, Southampton, North Sea, Sag Harbor, Amagansett, Springs, East Hampton, Hampton Bays, Flanders, East Quogue, Westhampton and Eastport hauled in thousands of gallons of water to the hillside estate.

Tanker trucks had to inch past each other in the tight confines of the road and driveway, back and forth, for hours, between the firefighting scene and the nearest hydrants where they could refill, more than a mile away on Scuttle Hole Road and Head of Pond Road.

But, Chief Balserus said, the construction of the house made fighting the flames easier for firefighters and helped them get the flames under control. “The house is well built, it’s all older sturdy timber, so it lasts longer under a higher load that allowed us to get in there,” he said. “More modern construction with laminates and TJI [floor joists], the glues burn and they fail much quicker, so you can’t be in there.”

The chief nodded to a fire at another large home in Bridgehampton that was engulfed in flames on December 19. That home, built more recently with the laminated composite construction materials now used widely in home construction, was largely destroyed because the fire spread more quickly, and the structural integrity of the interior became questionable soon after firefighters arrived, forcing them to retreat outside the structure.

“With that house, the first floor was starting to sag already within 10 to 15 minutes, and then it’s a safety concern from that point,” he said.

Beyond the extensive destruction of the roof and attic space and damage to the ceilings on the second floor, the Hearst house was largely intact and not substantially damaged, the chief said.

Firefighters were able to rescue a number of pieces of artwork from the house, the chief acknowledged, an effort that local firemen commonly undertake at fires when safety and manpower allow.

“It’s not just artwork — we can’t tell whether something is valuable or not, but anything that clearly means something to people, if we can get stuff out, we will do that if the situation allows,” Mr. Balserus said. “It’s just one of those things: You try to save everything you can, within reason. It helps people get through a difficult time.”

Ms. Hearst, an heir to the Hearst Communications fortune, who is married to novelist Jay McInerney, owns three lots on the hillside totaling 18.5 acres. In addition to the main house, which boasts more than 16,000 square feet of interior space on three floors and another 2,300 square feet of decks and porches, there is a second 5,500-square-foot home and a collection of outbuildings.

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