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POWNAL, Vt. — A late-night blaze that gutted the former Green Mountain Race Track grandstand building is considered suspicious and is being investigated by state fire officials.

No one was reported injured in the fire, which was first reported to the Pownal Fire Department at around 10:48 p.m. Wednesday and soon after generated a mutual aid call around the region.

Multiple departments from Bennington County and nearby Massachusetts and New York fought the blaze, which because of the grandstand's cement block walls, was said to burn like a furnace as wood and other combustible materials were consumed.

INVESTIGATORS CALLED

In a report posted late Thursday afternoon, Detective Sgts. Steven Otis and Matt Hill, of the Vermont State Police, and Assistant State Fire Marshal Stan Baranowski, of the Vermont Division of Fire Safety, said they responded to the track fire scene at 9 a.m. and met with local fire personnel. That included Pownal Fire Chief Keith Coon, who had requested assistance from the Department of Public Safety Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit in determining the cause of the blaze.

According to the report, the fire progressed rapidly inside the grandstand building, "and it was decided by the fire chief to only fight the fire from the exterior to prevent injury or possible death by any internal firefighting efforts by fire personnel," the report stated.

"Based upon an examination of the exterior, and noting several areas of collapse in the roof and the damage to heavy support columns to the three-story steel-and-concrete building, it was deemed too dangerous to conduct an internal examination," the state investigators said in the release.

They said information was gathered about small fires having been reported in the structure over the summer, which were extinguished by local firefighters, and of acts of vandalism and littering on the property.

"These were deemed to be young adults hanging out in the area and entering the building to vandalize the structure, skateboard, and even more recently, ATV riders were noted inside the structure driving around," the report stated.

The Vermont Arson Tip Award Program is offering an award of up to $5,000 for any information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in a crime of arson.

Information is available by calling the Vermont Arson Tip Award Program hotline at 1-800-322-7766, or by contacting Sgt. Otis at the Westminster Barracks, at 802-722-4600, or by email at steven.otis@vermont.gov.

CLOSED FOR DECADES

Green Mountain Race Track opened in May 1963 as a thoroughbred and harness race track and switched to greyhound racing in the mid-1970s before closing for good in 1991.

The property with 144 acres was sold at auction in 1992, and several attempts followed to revive horse racing there but were unsuccessful.

Currently, it is owned by a group that has attempted to hold concerts and promote other activities at the prominent site off Route 7 near the Williamstown, Mass., border. A solar array on leased land at the site, where horse barns once stood, went online in 2013.

The grandstand, however, has been largely unused for many years and has sustained water and other damage from roof leaks and a flood that overflowed the nearby Hoosic River and entered the lower sections.

Stephen Soler, managing member of Green Mountain Race Track, LLC, which owns the property, said Thursday afternoon that "a significant amount" had been spent this year to secure the building. In his view, the fire should be considered arson "since they had to tear down boards to get in there."

Soler, a Connecticut resident, added that "we will have to evaluate what happened today" before considering any future plans for use of the site or fate of the grandstand building.

TOWN CONCERNED

The town has been concerned since at least early this year about reports of youth and others entering the grandstand for parties or other reasons and sometimes starting campfires on the cement floors.

During board meetings in March and April, the Pownal Select Board discussed possible actions against the owner to ensure the grandstand was secured and apparent construction debris found during an inspection near the building was removed.

Zoning Administrator Michael Gardner, who also is a member of the Select Board, said Thursday there had been "an attempt to board it up" on the part of the owners.

He said the board in the spring determined that the town did not have legal authority to force the owners to demolish the grandstand building, which has been informally estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But officials will likely reconsider Pownal's options in light of the fire damage, he said.

Gardner said he was at the fire scene from about 7 a.m. until after 1 p.m. and spoke with a number of state officials. He said he believes that the owners will be considered legally liable if the building is not secured or demolished.

"We will probably try to do what we can to get this torn down," he said.

Firefighters said that at one time more than 20 fire trucks were at the fire scene, many transporting water pumped from nearby sources to fight the blaze. A ladder truck from Williamstown was used for a time to "put out hot spots" otherwise difficult to reach in the building.

In addition to Pownal Fire Department and Pownal Valley Fire Department, among mutual aid departments responding were Bennington FD, Bennington Rural FD, North Bennington FD, Shaftsbury FD, Arlington FD, and Stamford FD. Also responding were departments from Hoosick, Hoosick Falls, North Hoosick, Pittstown, Petersburgh, Raymertown and White Creek in New York; and from Williamstown and Clarksburg in Massachusetts.

Pownal Rescue and Northern Berkshire EMS also responded, as did Vermont State Police, Bennington County Sheriff's Department and the state fire investigators.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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