Police investigating fire that destroyed home that was vacant due to road closure

  • A home, shown on Sept. 20, 2023, was destroyed by fire on Hemlock Road in Norwich, Vt., early Monday morning. Authorities are investigating the fire. The road has been closed since flooding earlier this summer. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Prior to the arrival of first responders on Hemlock Road in Norwich, Vt., on early Monday morning, road barrier signs were tossed over the bank, some landing in the Ompompanoosuc River. A home on the road was destroyed by fire. Arson is suspected to be the cause of the fire. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2023 8:32:08 PM
Modified: 9/21/2023 12:43:52 PM

NORWICH — Authorities are investigating a fire that burned down an unoccupied house at the end of Hemlock Road, which has been closed to traffic for two months because of damage sustained during July’s flooding.

The fire occurred in the early morning hours Monday at 95 Hemlock, one of four homes on the dead-end road affected by an emergency road closure after the embankment supporting the road was washed out.

A state police trooper reported the fire from the interstate just before 1:20 a.m. The Norwich Fire Department responded to the call, along with firefighters from neighboring towns that include Hanover, Hartford and Strafford.

Norwich Fire Chief Alex Northern said that responders arrived at the scene around 1:25 a.m. and had to leave their vehicles at the barricades and proceed to the property by foot, approximately a five minute walk. In addition to the heavy concrete barriers that blocked the road, Northern said, the road is not considered safe for heavy vehicles.

An ultra-terrain vehicle, or UTV, was used to shuttle fire suppression equipment to the property, according to Northern.

“The structure was fully involved when I got there,” Northern said. “It had been on fire for a long time (before it was spotted).”

The house was completely destroyed by the blaze and deemed a total loss, according to Interim Town Manager Brennan Duffy.

Duffy said on Wednesday the fire was considered suspicious and is under investigation.

A call to the lead investigator, Detective James Wright of the Vermont State Police, was not returned.

The property is owned by Yanmei Lin, a professor and program director at Vermont Law School. Lin had been renting the home to one tenant prior to the road being closed.

Phone and email messages to Lin’s office seeking comment were not returned.

Hemlock Road was closed in July after engineers found significant erosion of the embankment as a result of fast-moving floodwater in the Ompompanoosuc River and soil oversaturated by heavy rains. The loss of support beneath the road caused the surface to crack and split and one portion of road appeared to be sinking into the failing slope.

In August a group of individuals entered the closed area and attempted to repair the road themselves by filling in the surface cracks with dirt and gravel. Duffy said at a Sept. 11 Selectboard meeting that this action had not made the road safe to travel and risked jeopardizing the road’s eligibility for reimbursement funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. That incident is still under investigation.

Two of the four houses at the end of Hemlock Road are rental properties — one of which was Lin’s.

The other two houses are part of a single estate. The owner, Kathleen Peterson, died on July 8.

Dianne Neuss, Peterson’s sister and executrix of the estate, said the family is becoming increasingly concerned about being unable to access the property. Peterson’s siblings, including Neuss, live in other states, which adds to the difficulty of trying to manage the properties.

“I’m unable to put the property on the market and have no way to gain access in order to remove the contents of the two homes and barns,” Neuss said in a letter to the town. “In addition, there is no way to maintain the property, to have oil delivered or have the homes winterized.”

Lin, who attended Selectboard meetings in July and August, expressed similar concerns about the inability to protect her unoccupied home, including from fire or theft.

The town is currently negotiating a contract for an engineering study of Hemlock Road to determine permanent repairs. Duffy said the contract would be brought to the Selectboard for approval on Sept. 27.

In the meantime, the town does not have a temporary solution to allow vehicle passage on the road until permanent repairs are made — which could take 12 to 18 months to complete.

The town had hoped to create a temporary access road, which would require a temporary easement from the owner of the abutting land. But town staff have been unable to locate the landowner to receive permission to build on his property.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

CORRECTION: One tenant was residing at 95 Hemlock Road in Norwich prior to the road’s closure in July. The number of tenants stated in a previous version of this story was incorrect.

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