Biting cold causes burst pipes, fires; concern for homeless

Boston, MA 010413 Man hole cover overflowing after a water main break at Bowdoin Street near the MA State House and with the intersection of Cambridge St on January 4, 2013. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)/ MET
A man hole cover was overflowing today after a water main break at Bowdoin Street near the State House at the intersection of Cambridge Street.
Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff

With the state mostly dug out from the season’s first big snowstorm, Massachusetts is now confronting widespread damage caused by bitingly cold temperatures, including a rash of burst pipes, water main breaks, and house fires that have displaced at least 115 residents.

Temperatures in Boston last night plunged to 2 degrees, but that was relatively balmy compared to overnight lows of minus 16 and minus 12 in Norwood and Taunton.

The bitter cold prompted deep concerns about the homeless, as anyone who remained outdoors was vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. Boston’s Pine Street Inn has overflowed with homeless the past two nights, with up to 64 people sleeping on cots in overflow areas of the shelter, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Harris. The shelter also called in extra staffers and extended the operating hours of its outreach vans.

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“We won’t send anybody away in these conditions,” Harris said. “If we reach our bed capacity, we make room in the lobby, we set up cots and mats. Having a warm place to stay is vital.”

Expanding ice in frozen water pipes caused extensive damage.

A water main at Cambridge and Bowdoin Streets in downtown Boston early this afternoon burst, flooding nearby streets and closing them to traffic, according to Boston Fire Department spokesman Stephen MacDonald.

A similar flood at 36 Harrison Ave. in Chinatown around noon leaked water into the building’s heating system, causing it to smoke, said MacDonald. The acrid smoke poured through ductwork, forcing an evacuation of the building’s eight apartments and sending nine firefighters to the hospital with respiratory problems.

A spokesman for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown said a sprinkler at the brand-new building burst this morning. The hospital had to shut down its kitchen and service elevators while workers tried to contain the minor flood, but no permanent damage was inflicted.

Officials also blamed the weather for a spike in house fires. Red Cross spokeswoman Kat Powers said at least 115 people have been displaced by house fires since New Year’s Eve.

Officials said many of the fires were caused when cold residents tried to heat their homes with ovens or space heaters left too close to combustible material.

A fire in Quincy that caused extensive damage to a single-family home and sent several residents to the hospital was caused by a vintage space heater being operated inside a three-season porch, said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.

“We’ve had an increasing number of fires because of the cold weather,” said Coan. “Most are related to heating situations.”

Coan said fires in Ashfield, Conway, Oakham had badly damaged three homes and injured at least one resident. The cold weather and lack of a municipal water supply made fighting those blazes incredibly difficult, he said. Ice can cause falls and cause ladders to become stuck or encased in ice.

“Firefighting is a dangerous enough job in the best of weather, but it’s an extremely difficult job in bad weather,” Coan said.