BELFAST, Maine — Adam and Ashley Sorrentino had to work hard during the mid-December cold snap to keep their wood stove fed and their small house on the outskirts of Belfast warm and comfortable.
Adam Sorrentino, a stickler for safety, recently installed a new stovepipe and took pains to clean the chimney every six weeks — a messy, time-consuming task that had seemed especially important since the family had endured a small chimney fire about six years ago. So on Friday, Dec. 16, after their two kids had gone to school, the Sorrentinos didn’t worry about leaving the house to do some Christmas-related errands. But halfway to Camden, about 10 miles from home, they got the kind of phone call no one wants to get. It was Ashley’s mother, who lives behind their house, and she was frantic.
“Your house is on fire!” she told her daughter. The couple turned around and raced back to Belfast, with every mile feeling like it lasted forever. They arrived to a scene from a bad dream: the house they had lovingly renovated and which had been in her family for generations was engulfed in flames. The stack of wood piled near the wood stove had ignited, catching the floor and then the rest of the house on fire. Although the Belfast Fire Department worked valiantly to extinguish the flames, the little house was considered a total loss. The family’s furniture, clothes, toys, baby books and more were all gone, destroyed by smoke, heat, flames and water.
“I was a collector,” Ashley Sorrentino said. “I loved my stuff. My husband and I had joked just before the fire about becoming minimalists. It was a huge cosmic joke.”
The Sorrentinos are grateful that the fire happened during the daytime, when no one was home, and that no one was hurt except for her 6-year-old son’s pet fish. They know that if it had happened at night it could have been much different. But compounding the sense of being the punchline of a cosmic joke is the fact that the family was uninsured, despite their efforts to call what felt at times like every insurance agency in the country.
The wood stove was the family’s sole source of heat. They couldn’t afford to put in a backup heat source, such as an oil-burning furnace, a propane heater or an electric heat pump, according to Ashley Sorrentino.
“Nobody would insure us because we didn’t have an alternative source of heat,” she said. “We were hugely surprised to learn we couldn’t get insurance. It’s not uncommon for people to use wood for heat. I think a lot of people do. I can only assume they’re not insured, either.”
“We tried so many times,” her husband chimed in. “As soon as you mention the word ‘wood stove,’ they’re like, ‘see you later.’”
Are wood stoves an acceptable risk?
Heating with wood in a state that is rich in wood sounds like a no-brainer. Mainers love their wood stoves, which keep houses warm, do not stop working when the power goes out, and which can be an economical and renewable source of heat. But that doesn’t mean that insurance companies love them, too.
Phil Brown of Belfast, a retired agent who worked for many years with State Farm Insurance, doesn’t mince words.
“Wood stoves, in the insurance business, are in a sense a pariah,” he said. “A lot of companies will not take the risk of wood heat. They will not do it. The risk with wood stoves is so much greater, and that’s why companies say, ‘You’re heating with a wood stove?’ Well, we don’t want it. It’s kind of hard-hearted, but that’s the bottom line.”
It’s unclear how many Mainers only heat with wood stoves, according to Lisa Smith, senior planner of the Governor’s Energy Office.
“I’m not aware of anywhere that tracks that information,” she said this week.
But what is tracked is the number of households that primarily heat with wood. According to 2015 information from the U.S. Census, 74,487 households in Maine, or 13.5 percent, use wood stoves, wood pellet stoves or wood burning furnaces as their primary source of heat.
During Brown’s years as an agent, he inspected many wood stoves in central and northern Maine. Many were properly installed and appeared to be as safe as a wood stove could be, he said, but others surprised him. Some were built right against the wall or directly on wooden floors or had the firewood stored right next to the wood stove.
“I’d shake my head and say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Brown recalled. “With wood stoves, if you know how to do it, you’re perfectly safe. If you make one mistake — they’re dangerous.”
Scott Carlson of Allen Insurance and Financial, a Maine-based financial services, insurance and employee benefits company, said that if homeowners are shopping for an insurance policy, they are required to share information about their sources of heat. And if one of those sources of heat is a wood stove, insurance companies like his will request that the homeowner complete a so-called “wood stove questionnaire,” including details about installation and dimensions. They also are likely to request photos of the wood stove and of the space around the stove.
“Keep in mind that an insurance company will do periodic home inspections,” he said. “If a wood stove is discovered, [the company] has every right to know the details about that stove. … Wood stoves are a risk. Heating your home with a wood stove is clearly more risky than not heating with a wood stove.”
But if a wood stove is the primary or only source of heat, it’s a whole different conversation, Carlson said.
“If you have plumbing in your home, and the primary source of heat is a wood stove, it is possible for the fire to go out and the home gets cold enough for the pipes to freeze,” he said. “A frozen pipe claim can be as devastating as a fire claim.”
Still, Carlson said that his company has a large number of clients with wood stoves in their homes, which mostly are used as a secondary heat source. Many agencies also will work with their customers to obtain a professional opinion from a fire chief or another expert who will look at the stove and attest to its safety. This is how some Mainers have obtained insurance for their homes even when they have an antique wood stove, which may not have the safety features of a modern wood stove, he said.
“Wood stoves and homeowners insurance can be surprising,” Carlson said. “Before I worked in insurance I didn’t necessarily appreciate the significance of it. I liked the beauty of a wood stove. But boy, if I had to be the company that stood behind that home, I’d want to know more about that wood stove.”
Sifting through the ashes
Such information doesn’t help Ashley and Adam Sorrentino, who are grappling with the aftermath of a terrible house fire without the benefits of homeowners insurance. They figure they had invested at least $50,000 into their home over the years they had lived there, money which has disappeared as surely as their furniture. But all isn’t lost, Ashley Sorrentino said. As they have sifted through the rubble, they’ve managed to salvage some objects, including her small son’s teddy bear collection, which he had been very concerned about. The bears were in a basket upstairs, she said, and something she saw there gave her the chills.
“Smokey the Bear had toppled into the basket of bears, arms outstretched, like he was protecting them,” she said.
Something else that happened after the fire that has been wonderful is the outpouring of support.
“Our community is really amazing,” she said. “There are people who are willing to help other people.”
Until the fire, Sorrentino has been the one to proffer a helping hand. The lifelong resident of Belfast has spent the last five years running her home-based charity called “Waldo County Families Helping Families.” In a shingled shed on her property, which was unscathed by the fire, she collects donations of clothing and household goods, processes and cleans them, and then distributes them free of charge to families and people in need.
“It’s a pay-it-forward thing,” she said. “Many times we have helped families who have lost their homes to fire. Many times. When it happens to you, it’s at a completely different level.”
The community she has helped has been working to help her in her own family’s time of need, she said. An online gofundme fundraising site that a friend set up after the fire has so far brought in more than $18,000 — money the Sorrentinos can use to get back on their feet. A resident of nearby Northport has offered them a place to live for a few months in exchange for work in kind, a recent benefit supper raised $2,600 for them and they have an application in to Habitat for Humanity to rebuild their home.
When that happens, Ashley Sorrentino said, it will have an alternate form of heat — but even after the fire, she’d like it to have a wood stove, too.
“It’s such an awesome source of heat, and it is cost-effective,” she said.
But the family will be extra vigilant in the future about keeping ample space between things that could possibly combust and the wood stove.
“We thought that we were doing everything right,” she said. “We had never expected anything like this to happen. Ultimately, I think it’s really important to understand it’s really difficult to get insurance if you have just a wood stove.”