Nantucket Fire Department
Nantucket Essays

The Next Fire

by Robert P. Barsanti

The Veranda House burned and nobody noticed. 

Oh, we saw the pictures. We saw the plumes of smoke extending over the town, riding up, washing through the windmill and then out over the south shore. And we saw the pictures on social media and TV. However, the fire was an isolated event, much like the fireworks, the Pops, and Christmas Stroll. We hosted a news event that got our name onto local and national news. Any advertising is good advertising: My AirBnB views went through the roof. 

The Veranda House fire did not kill anyone because of luck and heroes. If local fisherman Nate Barber goes out of town for coffee that morning, people die. If the fire department gets stopped in island traffic, the Jared Coffin House and the entire north side of town burns. But 17 fire fighters, many volunteers, and a bucket brigade minimized the damage. Thank God. Let’s get another plate of cherrystones. 

Every hero arises out of a failure. Batman fights crime on the streets of Gotham because the police force is overwhelmed. Nate Barber, and others, accepted the curse of heroes because the island has failed. We do not have enough firefighters. We can’t make the Rhode Island owners of a historic wooden structure install sprinklers because that would make them walk away from the purchase. Every fire on Nantucket is a one-alarm fire. Only one firehouse will answer within three hours. 

Our most dire challenge comes from a lack of care. We feel the pull of care, of course. We return lost wallets to the police, bring stray dogs into our houses, and try to find stolen bicycles. We care. But any community, in particular an island community, needs people whose whole job is caring. We need teachers; we need policemen; we need social workers; we need therapists; we need nurses; we need surgeons. 

Instead, we have come to be an island of realtors and innkeepers. If I can rent out the bedrooms for $500 a night, good for me. The cash in my hand makes me smarter, tougher, and sharper than everyone else. We look at our community with an eye to sell it. What pictures can I put on Instagram? How can I stage Gramma’s bedroom for possible guests? How can I get more for me and take more from thee? 

Instead of realtors and innkeepers, we need surfers and fishermen. Surfers and fishermen come to the island for their passion. They will live in the basement, in the duplex, in the guest apartment if they can get into the lineup when the tide changes or if they can go out with their buddies on a boat and bring back a 800-pound tuna. The island, with its waves and fish, draw them here. Moreover, it shapes them. The sons and daughters of the island return here for those rewards from this island community. Any community, in particular an island community, needs those folks who aren’t trying to siphon another twenty bucks out of a wallet. 

We need carers. We need people who will work for less than a lawyer and do the work that the lawyers don’t want to do. They will help clean up the sick at Our Island Home. They will sit with the troubled and upset and talk them through it (without billable hours). They will teach the kids, rich poor, Hispanic, Anglo, or sick. In the past, the island has made a compact with the carers. You come out here and do what you do, and we will find a way to protect you from the Holocaust of Dollars. You can even catch a few Stripers. 

That compact is gone. Of course, the center of the Holocaust is housing. A teacher just signed on for the year at Nantucket Elementary School and will be paying $3,000 a month for a winter rental (no pets please). On an island of innkeepers and realtors, every room is a potential $3,500 a week. That three thousand a month is a bargain. He should sublet it. 

Dormitory housing has been offered as a possible solution, and it is part of a bucket brigade of last minute solutions. But how can you keep nurses onisland for a career, if they can’t save money for a house on Newtown Road? How can you have a continuity of care if you have to always reintroduce the clients to a new therapist? And how effective are the teachers when they are only on Zoom? When the plumbers and electricians are taking the evening boat back home, the teachers, the police, and the rest of the carers aren’t far behind. 

While housing is at the center, the fire feeds on other fuel. Many, both in schools and without, live in a C.E.O.’s mindset, waiting to be called for their TED Talk. Managers and bosses, with six-figure salaries, must know more than their underlings with mere fivefigure salaries. After all, they get paid more. They read “Grit” and “Seven Habits of Successful People.” So, if we let the malcontents and the “vision-blind” slip away, we can replace them with the young, the cheap, and good “team members.” Ten teachers are leaving the high school, most with gray houses and sea-girt home. They are leaving a changing school, which is majority-minority, has eleven different languages, and students from seventeen countries. In other words, a school that has more challenges than most mainland schools. The schools will attempt to replace those ten experienced teachers with people willing to pay $3,000 a month for rent (no pets please). 

Every fire is a one alarm fire on Nantucket. Only one firehouse is coming to answer the call. I smell smoke.

Articles by Date from 2012