Cause Of Fire ID'd At Internationally Famous Western Mass Dance Co. Jacob's Pillow

Fire-fighting officials have closed the case on the cause of a fire that ripped through a local, internationally-recognized dance performance space in November.

November 2020 fire at Jacob's Pillow in Becket
November 2020 fire at Jacob's Pillow in Becket Photo Credit: Monterey Fire Department

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey along with Becket’s fire and police chiefs, said that the cause of the fire at Jacob’s Pillow is “officially undetermined.”

Still, firefighters explained their strong suspicions about how the fire began as well as how better fire-safety measures at Jacob’s Pillow could have reduced the damage.

The 6:50 a.m. fire that broke out on Nov. 17, 2020, started in the Doris Duke Theatre of Jacob's Pillow, 358 George Carter Road in Becket. The estimated damage is $3 million, the state fire marshal said. No injuries were reported in the incident.

The fire appears to have started around the patron’s entrance to the building. It cannot be determined whether the fire began on the inside or outside of the building. In either situation, firefighters have pinpointed the suspected cause of the fire.

“It is possible that improperly discarded smoking materials or electronic equipment inside the entryway ignited the fire,” Ostroskey said in a statement.

Due to the extensive damage done by the flames, Ostroskey said it is impossible to be certain what caused the fire.

Jacob's Pillow is the oldest, internationally-acclaimed summer dance festival in the U.S., according to the dance company's and performing arts space's website.

Still, the show must go on, and it did just that at Jacob’s Pillow, which has been providing COVID-19-friendly dance workshops, labs, and programs as usual. The Duke Theatre was just one of Jacob’s Pillow’s three stages.

The damage to Jacob’s Pillow may have been reduced if firefighters had been alerted to the fire sooner, but the dance company’s fire alarm system had been in “failure mode since Halloween, so there was no immediate notification to the fire department,” Ostroskey said.

Jacob’s Pillow did have a sprinkler system, but it seemed to have worked for 30 minutes before the pump failed, Ostroskey said. That same pump also operated the fire hydrant, which did not function.

This led to a short delay in establishing sufficient water supply and flow, Ostroskey said. Firefighters established a tanker shuttle system to obtain water to extinguish the blaze and used the on-site pond.

“The delayed notification coupled with the failure of the fire sprinkler pump caused extensive damage before the fire department even arrived,” said Fire Chief Mikaniewicz. “This fire had a grip on the building before we were even notified of the fire.”

The fire was investigated by the Becket fire and police departments as well as the State Police and the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The investigation is now closed, the Fire Marshal said. The separate issue of why the sprinkler system didn’t completely work is being investigated by the insurance company, the fire marshal said.

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