Suspicious fire in vacant building prevented from spreading to nearby historic church

A fire early Wednesday that severely damaged a historic St. Thomas building that had been vacant for nearly a year has been deemed suspicious, fire officials say.

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A fire early Wednesday that severely damaged a historic St. Thomas building that had been vacant for nearly a year has been deemed suspicious, fire officials say.

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St. Thomas firefighters responded around 6:30 a.m. to the former Walnut Manor at 57 Walnut St. after an area resident called 911 to report the structure was on fire.

“The three-story building was completely engulfed when we arrived on scene, so we called in all off-duty personnel to fight the fire,” said Kim Destun, fire prevention officer for St. Thomas.

No injuries were reported. The fire originated at the back of the building which was in disrepair and had last been used as a residence for people with physical and mental health issues.

Firefighters had not estimated the dollar value of the damage from the blaze as of midday Wednesday.

But the structural damage was so extensive that it forced firefighters to call in an excavator to demolish parts of the building that were over 130 years old.

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“Because the building was not structurally sound, firefighters were unable to enter to eliminate all hot spots,” Destun said.

By his tally, this is the third fire in as many years at Walnut Manor, said Steve Peters, a member of the restoration committee for the historic Old St. Thomas Church which adjoins the now-damaged property and is approaching its 200th. anniversary.

Peters, who visited the scene after learning of the fire, said he breathed a sigh of relief when he arrived and saw the church was intact.

“We have been seriously concerned about this since this building has been vacant,” he said.

“We were lucky the wind was blowing in our favor, and we are extremely grateful to the St. Thomas Fire Department for their quick action and containing the fire in the neighboring building.

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Walnut Manor was operating as a supportive residence in July 2021 when Southwest Public Health ordered it to close following multiple inspections that found ongoing violations, including significant mold, rodent and bed bugs and a lack of hot running water.

Twenty-six residents who lived there were moved to other locations., the Burlington-based company that owned Walnut Manor, announced in October 2021 that the house was permanently closed. The company said it was working with a local developer to “reuse” property near the elevated park in the west of the city as new housing units.

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Jennifer C. Burleigh