Fire that destroyed Vermont weekly’s office ruled intentional by authorities

Aug 30, 2018

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
WOODSTOCK, VT—Fire investigators ruled in late August that the July 16 fire, which destroyed the office of the Vermont Standard and two other businesses, was deliberately set.
Owner of the weekly newspaper, Phil Camp, said the investigators had only just determined that the fire was intentional, but they had not implicated anyone in the blaze that also destroyed two apartments. No one was injured in the fire or during the process of putting it out.
Camp said he knew that the fire was not aimed at his newspaper, which occupied the second floor of the building. Smoke detectors helped in warning the apartment residents to the fire’s presence, allowing them to escape without harm. A person driving through town in the early morning spotted the fire and reported it. There were rumors as to who and why the fire was set, but Camp said he dealt in facts, and would report those facts when the authorities made them public.
The good news, he said, “is they now know it was set, and I know it wasn’t us.” The bad news, he explained, is the insurance company won’t pay until it knows who is to blame for the fire.
Camp said he heard about the fire from his brother, Dwight, who called him after hearing the fire call over his personal police band radio.
“He keeps it in his bedroom,” Camp said about his brother’s radio, during a phone interview from his new office space. “Dwight said, ‘Why aren’t you there?’ I said, where? He said, ‘At the fire. Your office is on fire.’”
After getting the call from Dwight at 3:30 a.m., Camp and his wife, Mary Lee, drove the 11 miles into town from their home in Barnard, VT.
“I thought the whole town was on fire at first,” he said. Woodstock sits in a valley, and the air inversion was holding most of the smoke inside the valley. Plus, 15 fire companies showed up to fight the fire. They put pumps in a nearby stream to feed water reservoirs set up to allow the fire truck continuous access to water.
“Without that, we would have lost at least 25 percent of the town,” Camp said.
Luckily, most of the newspaper’s equipment could be salvaged. The local library offered space to Camp and his staff. They moved in and quickly put out the next newspaper.
“We’ve been in business for 165 years and never missed an issue,” he said. “And we weren’t going to miss one on my watch.” Camp said he made himself a promise after buying the Vermont Standard 38 years ago. “I told myself I would collect the information, the news, that people want, needed and deserve to have.”
Camp said he and his staff were about 90 percent moved in to the new office, but would need a few more weeks to get everything unpacked, hooked up and ready to run. Right then, he had only a couple of chairs and desks and an annoying echo from all the open space.
The Vermont Standard is no stranger to disaster. In August 2011, the Ottauquechee River jumped its banks because of torrential rains from the remnants of Hurricane Irene. The flood waters blew out the walls of the former newspaper office, covering the furniture and equipment in mud.
Some of the people on staff now were there for that disaster, too, Camp said. Like true heroes, they rolled up their sleeves and jumped in to help get the newspaper ready for its next publication.
A fire in 1867 and a flood in 1973 also failed to shut the paper down, although the flood in ’73 did destroy the paper’s press. Its printing has been outsourced since then and they just recently was switched to a new printer.
The strange thing, Camp said, is that this latest fire has forced them to move into the very building where the Vermont Standard was born in 1853. His grandfather had owned a funeral home in the same building as the newspaper. In 1952, when Camp was just 16, he walked into the newspaper office and talked with the then owner and publisher, Benton Dryden, who was sitting at his roll-top desk with a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth.
“He wanted to know what I thought of the newspaper,” Camp said. “He wanted to know what he could do to make the paper better. There were only three sports teams in the area, and I told him they needed better coverage. Right there, he offered to make me sports editor of the paper.”
Camp, who is now 82, said that’s how he got started in the newspaper business.
“I didn’t know how to type and wasn’t a good speller, but he said I showed promise,” Camp added. “He talked me out of going into the Army and, instead, going to college.” Years later, Camp would buy the newspaper.
Camp has 10 people on staff, seven full-time and three part-time. All of them, he said, made him proud of the work they put into getting out the next paper.
The townspeople were incredible, as well, he said. “People stepped forward with offers of help and space to set up a temporary office for the weekly newspaper. Local restaurants fed the first responders and my staff, and never asked for a dime.”
Even one of Camp’s advertisers called and said he had not planned on advertising that week, but said he would.
Once the New England Newspaper and Publishers Association circulated the news about the fire, Camp said calls started coming in from all over with offers of help and equipment.
“My philosophy,” he said, “is we hold up a mirror to the community, so that it can see itself as it really is.” Camp said he doesn’t shy away from reporting bad news, but usually relegates that to the inside pages of the paper, keeping the cover for showing the good things his community does.
“Life’s not perfect. And the people have a right to know that we’re not perfect,” he explained.
After this latest fire, Camp said one of his sons called and asked him if he knew what the Bible said.
“You’ve had fire and flood, he told me. The next black cloud you see on the horizon just may be a swarm of locusts,” Camp said laughing.
This disaster did not diminish his enthusiasm for community journalism. He wants the Vermont Standard to continue to publish, bringing the news to the town’s residents.