Burning Down the House: Researching a Fire

Has anyone ever suggested to you that there might have been a fire in your house? Maybe you found out from a real estate agent or a neighbor. Did the fire burn part of the house or most of it?

Looking into possible fires is an interesting aspect of house history research. Here are some suggestions to get your started.

Burned out multi-family home
A burned out multi-family home in Charlestown, MA

Two Approaches to Researching a Fire

#1 If you know the date of the fire

If you know the date a fire occurred at your house then your best bet will be to go directly to newspaper accounts. Depending on how long ago the fire occurred, a newspaper account will provide the most detailed coverage of the fire. This works best if you know the date of a fire within a year or less. Searching through newspapers can be tedious if you don’t have a narrow date range. By working with an exact date, a week or a month spread you should be able to find an article quickly. Up to a year is still manageable but anything more than that get a bit unwieldy. Many newspapers are not digitized nor are they indexed. That means a commitment to scrolling through microfilm at your local library or archives.

#2 If you don’t know the date of the fire

When you don’t know the date of the fire, you need to take a completely different approach. In this case it’s best to start with the local Assessor’s office where the house is located. Ask the assessor to view the tax valuation lists for the time period that you think the fire occurred. Be sure to include several years before and after the possible fire date.

What to Look For

The tax valuation records will list the value of the house, barn and any other structures or acreage on the property. You need to find records of the house as it existed before the fire. It may be best to choose the last date you know the house was intact. Next check for changes in the value that are different from what was listed before. If a house was totally destroyed the tax value should be far less or the house might not appear at all. If it was a partial fire then a renovation might have occurred quickly. In this case look for a value increase. The new construction could add value to the existing house and/or the owner may have taken the opportunity to add on an addition.

A second approach is to call the local fire station and see if they have any records on file for the fire. You’ll have to determine how long the fire station has existed to see if they would have record of a fire. Your local station might not be the right one to check with if it is newer. So be sure to check all fire stations in town to be sure you have the right one.

Once you have narrowed the date of the fire to a year or less go to approach #1 above and search newspapers for further information.

Good luck with your fire research!

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