Crews working to determine cause of massive Newport estate fire

(Photo: Twitter/ Patrick Donnelly)

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — Fire crews were back at the scene of a massive fire at a historic house in Newport Friday morning.

The once magnificent Stonor Lodge estate on Bellevue Avenue was still smoldering and is now considered to be a total loss – and investigators are still trying to determine why the 9,000-square-foot home burned to the ground Thursday evening.

Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said the type of structure – and Mother Nature – made it difficult for firefighters to battle the blaze.

“There were wide spaces in between the walls as they renovated and it certainly added fuel to the fire. The winds just took it right down,” she told Eyewitness News.

The Newport Fire Department said the home was being completely renovated when the fire started around 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

According to Mayor Napolitano, fire companies from Middletown, Jamestown and the nearby Navy base responded to the blaze to provide backup to Newport firefighters.

A photo of the home in the late 1800s. (Photo courtesy of Newport City Hall)
A photo of the home in the late 1800s. (Photo courtesy of Newport City Hall)

Eyewitnesses said initially, the flames were shooting 50 to 60 feet into the air.

The massive size of the fire and blowing winds forced firefighters into defense-mode – as they rushed to contain the flames before they spread to another nearby home in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District.

It took firefighters an hour and a half to get the fire under control.

Newport fire marshal Wayne Clark told Eyewitness News Friday that Newport firefighters and police detectives, ATF agents and the state fire marshal’s office are trying to determine what caused the fire.

“We still have absolutely no hard-fast indication as to what the cause is…the damage is so significant it’s going to take a while to dig through it,” he said.

Clark said the size of the home and fire – and the extent of the damage – will make the job difficult.

The home is owned by Whaletail LLC out of New York.

Clark said the fire spread quickly because of the renovation that was going on. According to building permits Eyewitness News obtained from the city, the renovations included removing and installing new walls.

At this point, investigators don’t even know if the fire started inside the home or outside.

PHOTOS: Newport Fire »
VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Multimillion-dollar Newport home goes up in flames »

“Between the wind the way it was and the fire being able to travel through the house without a separation of walls, it certainly got a jump on us,” Clark said.

No injuries were reported, but there were 25 construction workers that were on scene when the fire started. Clark said they started interviewing those workers Friday morning.

Clark said the insurance company will be at the site Saturday to assess the damage.

Mayor Napolitano said the fire is particularly painful because she knew the previous owner, Noreen Drexel, who passed away in 2012.

“She opened it up to the residents and to others to promote causes that she thought were good for us,” the mayor said.

The Drexel Family sold the home to Whaletail in 2013 for $3.2 million, according to city records.

Eyewitness News reached out to the couple who currently owns the home through the company but has not yet heard back. 

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