A 3 a.m. phone call March 13, 2018, woke David Main from a deep sleep in his Virginia home, bringing the kind of news anyone would dread when the phone rings at that early hour.
“It was ADT calling to tell me that there was a fire at my house. I said how could there be a fire at my house, and they said the fire department is on their way to put out the fire,” he said.
By the time firefighters got to Main’s oceanfront home just south of Rehoboth Beach on Sand Dune Road, it was in flames. His neighbor’s home was also in flames, and two nearby homes were damaged in a fire that investigators estimate caused $5 million in damage – one of the priciest property losses recorded in Rehoboth or Dewey Beach.
Flames rose 70 feet in the air, burning down trees; the fire was so intense it melted nearby commercial-grade garbage cans, vinyl siding and decking on neighboring homes. Main said a resident living across town in Henlopen Acres told him they could see the fire.
After the 3 a.m. call, Main said, he headed east, stopping near Denton, Md., to watch video footage from his Blink camera that showed flames and embers blowing toward his home.
A Dewey police officer also called while Main was on the road to inform him about the fire. “Police called and said it’s a bad fire, and it appears it started next door,” Main said. “He said, ‘I hate to tell you, but it appears that it will be a complete loss.’”
By the time he got to his beach home at 6:30 a.m., only the front facade remained. Embers continued to flare under windy conditions, Main said, and at 10 a.m. an excavator came across the dunes and knocked down both Main’s home and what was left of his neighbor’s home. “They went in and smashed everything,” he said. “It was a tangled mess of metal.”
Warren Jones, spokesman for the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company, said the excavator was needed to completely extinguish the fire.
After several weeks, an insurance investigator contacted Main and told him the fire was so hot and intense, and then everything was knocked down by the excavator so that investigators could not get to the debris in order to trace the fire. “He said there is no access to any usable information,” Main said.
The insurance investigator also said the fire started next door, Main said. Main said he has his suspicions of how the fire started, but without confirmation from fire marshal or insurance investigators, the cause of the fire remains a question.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio said he could not say where or how the fire started.
“The origin and cause of this fire remains unknown for Sand Dune Drive,” he said.
Main and his wife first bought their home in 1996 after vacationing in Rehoboth since the 1980s.
“We love Rehoboth because of its small-town feel, the beautiful beaches, recreational options of all kinds, and lots of favorite places like the boardwalk and Funland,” he said.
Although technically considered Dewey Beach, his home is tucked away in a beachfront area that includes a sliver of homes that sit in Sussex County jurisdiction. Over the years, the couple has watched their children and now their grandchildren enjoy sun and sand, and all the amenities offered by the Rehoboth and Dewey beach communities.
“We love our current location because of its peacefulness at the end of the road, being nestled between the ocean and the lake,” he said. “We feel at peace when we are there, and close to nature.”
Main is determined to protect his investment, and has taken measures to prevent future fire loss.
One of the most important lessons he learned, he said, is to install a fire alarm system that connects to the fire department. A smoke alarm only works if someone is home to hear it. In beach homes that are vacant during winter months, Main said, it is important to have a working fire alarm system that is connected to the local fire company. His previous home was served by ADT for security and fire protection, and he continues to use them in his new home.
“On this street, everyone I know of is connected,” he said.
He also has four Blink cameras mounted on his home. There is no monthly fee for them – the cameras activate when there is motion, and send a text message when the cameras are activated.
Routine checks of electrical wiring are a must because salt air is corrosive. Following the fire, Main said, the power company refused to reconnect power to one of the neighboring homes because the main outside power box had deteriorated. “The inspector told me that this house would have been the next one to go up in flames,” Main said.
Protecting his investment
Main said he made several changes to his home when he rebuilt. Although pricey, he said, an $18,000 sprinkler system is probably the most important. Sprinkler heads are activated by heat and only turn on in a room where fire is suspected.
The outside of the home is now wrapped in a combination of fire-retardant Hardie board and stone. The deck and railings are also made of fireproof materials.
Main said he continues to use AIG for his beach home insurance, and recommends homeowners use a reputable company. He and his wife had inventoried the contents of their home, room by room, using a video camera and still camera, which helped with replacement value.
Second-floor rooms now have fire-escape ladders that can be used in the event that fire blocks a stairway or exit area. “I still worry whether we would’ve been able to get out, if we had been staying in the home the night of the fire,” Main said.
Lastly, Main said, he plans to install a security box, known as a Knox box, outside his home so if there is an emergency, responders can gain access.
The box contains a key to the home and can only be accessed by local emergency responders who hold a master key to unlock it.