Increasing Fire Safety While Maintaining Historic Beauty

By Lauren Wanko

As the weather heats up, many shore house owners consider moving back into their summer homes. Not the Weldons. A massive fire in Ocean Grove damaged their vacation getaway.

“It’s sad but nobody got hurt,” said John Weldon.

The multi-alarm fire happened on March 3, damaging more than seven buildings and impacting about 100 people. The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office tells NJTV News the fire is still under investigation. It’s the sixth major fire for the quaint seaside community within about a decade, says Neptune Township Committeewoman Carol Rizzo. The one-square mile beach resort, part of Neptune Township, is full of historic, Victorian style homes. In 1976, Ocean Grove was entered in the National Register of Historic Places.

“The historic elements of these homes that make them beautiful, make the neighborhood beautiful is also what contributes to the higher risk of fires. We are aware of that and we want to protect these communities as best as we can,” said Neptune Township Mayor Dr. Michael Brantley.

“A lot of these homes are very, very close together. They are also made principally of wood and a lot of these homes are over 100 years old so the wood is really aged. The other thing is they they weren’t built with modern material,” Rizzo said.

Officials are examining solutions to prevent the next fire, yet preserve the history of this picturesque community. Rizzo says fire rated building materials are a reliable option but it’s not the only solution. Many homeowners are not full-time residents.

“It’s often said smoke alarms save lives, but smoke alarms only save lives if somebody hears them. Central alarm monitoring is a great solution,” said David Shotwell Jr., Ocean Grove Fire Department public information officer. “That means your smoke alarms and quite often your home security system is being monitored by an off-site station 24 hours a day, seven days a week and if something happens, whether it’s a break-in or smoke alarms going off, they notify the appropriate authorities very quickly.”

The Weldons live in Freehold. They rebuilt their Ocean Grove home 15 years ago. The fire melted the siding and destroyed the roof.

“We’re replacing the entire exterior of the house,” Weldon said.

Aside from smoke damage, the interior of their home was untouched by the fire.

Weldon says he’s so grateful for the extraordinary efforts made by the firefighters. He credits them with saving his home, along with the fact that the lot next to his house was empty at the time. He also has fire rated sheathing on the outside and a sprinkler system inside the house.

Shotwell encourages homeowners to install a sprinkler system during renovations and take other fire safety precautions like arrange for a home fire inspection. He also hopes to see changes on a township level.

“I would like to see the current ordinances changed to allow the use of modern building materials andmore fire resistant, fire suppressant technologies,” he said. “I think we can do a lot to still preserve the historic nature without preserving the historic problems. Imagine if we tried to preserve the historic sanitation system. We’d still be dying of cholera.”

Neptune Township has a Historic Preservation Commission. It’s an advisory group of local residents who provide guidance and expertise in historic preservation of the structures in Ocean Grove. They’re appointed by the township.

There are guidelines now in place for homeowners so when they build or renovate, they maintain the historical integrity of Ocean Grove. Officials are examining those guidelines as well.

“Neptune Township is now presently posting for historic experts to help guide us in restructuring historic preservation guidelines and we will work alongside with our community and the Historic Preservation Commission in coming up with new standards,” Brantley said.

Weldon says he and his neighbors continue to focus on the balance between protection and preservation.

“I know that’s the biggest concern of most of the residents. They move here for a particular reason and they want to keep that. They want to keep that old architecture, the feeling of Ocean Grove. It’s just a wonderful place,” he said.

The couple hopes to once again enjoy their summer home throughout the fall this year.