November fire destroyed College-owned cabin

by Emily Lu | 1/9/20 2:10am

A chimney fire destroyed Hell Gate Gorge Cabin, located on the Second College Grant in northern New Hampshire, late on Nov. 15 and into the early morning hours of Nov. 16. The five occupants at the time, which included 2016 New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern Tu’09, escaped unharmed.  

The Office of Outdoor Programs maintains Hell Gate Gorge Cabin, a three-room cabin overlooking the lower end of the gorge. OPO cabins are available for use by Dartmouth alumni and employees, as well as their guests.

According to the responding personnel — the fire department of Errol, NH ­— the fire originated in the chimney pipe and spread to the exterior roof surface. A report on the incident stated that the ignition was unintentional and the source of heat came from “radiated or conducted heat from operating equipment,” likely pointing to the wood stove in the cabin used for warmth. “Structural member or framing” made up of sawn wood, including “finished lumber and wood shingles” was the first material to be ignited. Because of the heavy snowfall, the fire was confined to the OPO cabin and did not spread.

According to the report, a member of Van Ostern’s party initially noticed the fire when he left the cabin to use the outhouse at approximately 11:30 p.m.; at that point, flames were coming out of the roof surface adjacent to the chimney pipe. The rest of the occupants were promptly woken up and used a dry chemical fire extinguisher to put out the fire in the woodstove, then proceeded to climb onto the roof to extinguish the flames. However, the fire continued to spread under the tin roofing material. One occupant was sent to obtain cell service to call 911, while the others shut off the cabin’s propane tanks and evacuated the area. 

Hell Gate Gorge Cabin, the northernmost cabin in the grant, is located 12 miles from the entrance to the Second College Grant. The cabin’s isolation meant that the Errol Fire Department was not able to arrive at the scene until approximately 1 a.m., after the roof had collapsed inward and most of the structure was burning. The firefighters deployed an attack line to cool the two venting propane tanks, both of which were on fire. Because hazardous road conditions prevented only one of the two dispatched fire engines to reach the cabin, the limited supply of water quickly ran out. However, the significant snowfall prevented the fire from spreading; by 1:35 a.m., the fire was controlled. Errol Fire remained at the cabin to monitor and secure the scene until approximately 2 a.m. 

“We are grateful to the Errol volunteer firefighters for responding that night, and thankful that everyone escaped the cabin unharmed,” College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email.  

Van Ostern, along with the four members of his party and their two dogs, were relocated to a different cabin later that night, according to associate dean of student life Eric Ramsey.

Battery-operated detectors were present in the cabin, but failed to operate during the fire for undetermined reasons. According to Ramsey, the College inspected all cabins this past summer and again in December following the incident to examine the fire alarms and chimneys. 

“We have then gone and checked all of the chimneys and all of our cabins to make sure that they have the necessary integrity and to make sure that they are safe,” Ramsey said.  

The College has yet to decide whether to rebuild Hell Gate Gorge Cabin, first built in 1974, as current actions involve cleaning and preparing the site for the winter. The cabin’s insurance policy could fund replacement costs, according to Ramsey.  

“We will engage with our advisory boards and the community to talk about future rebuilding, but it’s still premature at this point,” Ramsey said. “It may be a great opportunity for a class or an alum or an interested party to get a cabin represented.”