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Second dorm fire in five weeks

Baxter incident prompts candle confiscation

March 29, 2019

At around 2:15 a.m. on Monday morning, a lit candle ignited a jacket and a bedspread, activating the smoke alarm in Baxter House. A student in the room extinguished the fire, resulting in a minor hand injury. This is the second candle fire in a College House in five weeks—following one in Quinby House last month—and it caused minor damages, with monetary damages estimated at $225, but sparked a quick administrative response.

The short period between the two candle-related fires in College residences prompted a crackdown on candles. In an email sent to all students on Tuesday, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster reiterated the College’s prohibition on candles and outlined new, harsher punishments for students caught with candles—whether or not they are lit.

According to the email, after Friday, “any student found with a candle in a residence, even if not lit, will face disciplinary consequences, beginning with social probation.”

Students on social probation cannot study abroad and are at risk of suspension if they break any further rules.

“The new approach is going to be zero tolerance with possession of candles because of the very real risk they pose to residential hall safety,” said Randy Nichols, director of safety and security. “We have always taken flamed candles seriously. Now it is going to be all candles.”

Nichols explained that security officers previously used discretion in dealing with candles, electing to give verbal or written warnings to students caught with unlit candles in their residences.

Despite their strict guidelines, Mike Ranen, associate dean of student affairs and director of residential and student life, clarified that the College will not sweep residence halls in search of the now contraband candles.

“There is no plan to enter rooms right now,” said Ranen. “We trust our students. And there won’t be [a plan to enter rooms], because I hope people take our policies seriously. The consequences from a health and safety and a student discipline viewpoint are severe.”

Students can dispose of any candles in one of three specifically marked drop-off points, which are located in the Thorne Hall lobby, the Moulton Union dining lobby and near the Information Desk in the David Saul Smith Union.

Students who have a specific candle they want to keep for memorial, ceremonial or religious reasons can turn it into the Office of Safety and Security for safekeeping. If they wish to use their candle, they can check it out from the Office of Safety and Security and light it either off campus or in an approved on-campus location. The candle must be checked back in immediately after use. Students can collect their candles when they leave for summer.

Ranen and Nichols both said that the urgent focus is ridding the residences of flammables. A further focus on fire safety education will come in the fall. Nichols will be emphasizing the importance of fire safety, especially the dangers of candles, in his annual meetings with incoming first years in the first-year bricks.

Less than five weeks ago, a discarded candle in a trash can set a Quinby House room aflame. The room’s resident was transported to Maine Medical Center for treatment of second- and third-degree burns. Sprinklers were activated in the building, causing the bulk of the upwards of $10,000 in damages.

Nearly every student residence has a sprinkler system, exceptions being the apartments on 84/86 Federal Street, according to information provided by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety. Ranen added that not every college has such an extensive sprinkler-based fire prevention system. Sprinklers were not activated during the Baxter fire.

There have been 19 fires in campus residence halls since 2012, according to publicly available information from Bowdoin’s Clery Report. Eleven of the fires were caused by cooking, whereas only three have been caused by candles.

Burn injuries, though, have only resulted from candle-based fires. According to Nichols, hospital visits and severe burns arose from both a January 2014 fire in Coles Tower, which ignited a student’s polyester clothing, and the February fire in Quinby House. No students required hospital visits after the Baxter fire.

All three fires occurred late at night in single bedrooms: Coles at 11:50 p.m., Quinby at 4:50 a.m. and Baxter at 2:15 a.m. Despite the presence of fire alarms and sprinklers, Nichols stressed the increased dangers from these late night fires.

“Are students going to hear [the alarm]? Are they in a deep sleep? Have they been drinking heavily the night before and are in a really deep sleep? Are they wearing noise-cancelling headphones? Are they wearing earplugs?” he said.

Late-night candle fires are not limited to the College alone. In January, a 4 a.m. candle fire ravaged a three-unit apartment building in Brunswick. It caused extensive property damage but no personal injuries, according to reporting by the Brunswick Times-Record.

Even Nichols himself knows the dangers of a candle fire.

“Back four, five years ago, my wife had all this garland and some real candles [on the mantle],” he said. “They burned down too low and caught some of that stuff on fire. We quickly put it out, but that’s how quickly it can happen.”

He now recommends battery-operated candles.

“You can get the ambience and warm glow of a candle,” he said. “So I would recommend any sort of battery-operated candle. There are dozens of them on the market, and they are safe and look great.”


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