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April 11. 2013 4:57PM

Lightning strike to blame for Exeter Town Hall fire

EXETER - Fire investigators say a lightning strike is to blame for Tuesday’s fire at the historic Exeter Town Hall.
 
The strike, which was recorded at 5:24 a.m. and was within a tenth of a mile from the town hall, caused the building’s grounding system to become energized, sparking a fire that originated with a printed circuit board in a wall-mounted thermostat, according to assistant fire chief Ken Berkenbush.
 
The fire was contained by a single sprinkler head activation and then extinguished by firefighters. Fire officials said the building at 9 Front St. could have been lost if not for the fire alarm and sprinkler systems.
 
Berkenbush said there were no other fires related to the thunderstorms that rolled through Tuesday morning. The fire damaged a storage room on the second floor and forced the building to close, possibly for up to two weeks. The town’s finance office has been relocated to the town office building.
 
 
Previous story follows:
 
EXETER - State and local fire investigators have not yet determined the cause of Tuesday's fire that damaged the old Exeter Town Hall and forced the town's finance office to temporarily relocate.

Fire Chief Brian Comeau said an investigator from the state fire marshal's office visited the town hall Tuesday to assist Exeter fire investigators but wasn't able to definitively determine a cause.

"He's puzzled by it too," he said.

As for possible causes, Comeau said, "We're still trying to rule a couple of things out that I don't want to get into yet."

An investigator from Primex, the town's insurer, will also take a look at the fire scene.

Comeau said the fire isn't considered suspicious "at this time."

The fire broke out Tuesday morning in an area of a storage room on the second floor of the town hall that was built in 1855 at 9 Front St. The old Town Hall now serves as a place for storage and community activities.

While the fire damage was contained to a small area because of the building's sprinkler system, the building suffered significant water damage.

Comeau said officials should have a better estimate on the damage costs by Thursday.

Electricians worked at the building Wednesday, along with crews from Servpro, who spent the day removing water and humidity, Comeau said.

The building is now closed and it's unclear when it will reopen. The town's finance office - the only municipal department located in the building - has now moved to the town office building across the street.

The fire also created big headaches for the Oyster River Players, a nonprofit theater company that planned to perform "Romeo and Juliet" at the Town Hall Friday through Sunday.

The group rushed to find a new venue and was able to use Dover High School. Adults and younger members of the company had to remove all the costumes, the set and other equipment, and relocate everything.

"We rounded everyone up and took the set apart. It was a lot of hassle but we had a lot of dedicated people," said Kitty Beller-McKenna, house manager and a parent whose daughter is a member of the company.

While the costumes and spotlights weren't damaged, Beller-McKenna said the set was wet but still useable.

Performances are scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.

jschreiber@newstote.com


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