Suspicious Fire Claims Vermont Huts’ Next Project

Three days ago, the Vermont Huts Association had plans to open two new cabins in the Chittenden area during the summer of 2018. Together, those cabins would have marked the Association’s first steps toward building a state-wide network of lodging for backcountry skiers, hikers and mountain bikers.

On Tuesday night, that changed. In an act considered by state police to be suspicious, one of those cabins, called the South Pond Hut, burned to the ground.

Photo courtesy of Kate Wanner, project manager for the Trust for Public Land

“It’s my understanding that it was a total loss,” said RJ Thompson, executive director of the Vermont Huts Association. “By the time people got up there, it was fully engulfed. I guess it’s just the chimney standing right now.”

When firefighters, unable to access the cabin in trucks, arrived on snowmobiles, they noticed fresh foot tracks in the snow that lead to and from of the house.

“I’m pretty shocked,” Thompson said. “It’s extremely tragic, and it’s obviously a setback. We have our work cut out for us.”

The hut, located on a hillside in Chittenden, had sweeping views of the Chittenden Reservoir and the Green Mountain National Forest. It was a quarter-mile from the Long Trail, and members of the Catamount Trail Association had been planning to reroute their trail to allow for easier access, according to Vermont Public Radio.

The hut had the capacity to sleep twelve people, and the Vermont Huts Association had planned to create a diverse lodging arrangement that included both hostel-style bunks and private rooms. They wanted to hire a live-in caretaker to maintain and oversee operation of the facility, and they were even toying with the idea of providing some basic meals for the guests.

Along with its bedrooms, the cabin featured a functional wood stove as well as hot water heater and showers.

“It had everything you need to just pop off the trail, or off of your skis, and be cozy,” Thompson said. “It was basically a really robust and well-built off-grid home. And it’s gone now.”

The hut, along with 2,700 acres of surrounding land, was purchased in December by the Trust for Public Land for $4 million. The cabin itself has been appraised at $300,000. The organization planned to transfer the land to the Green Mountain National Forest, which would have leased the hut to the Vermont Huts Association.

For now, Thompson is focused on moving forward. “We’re going to talk to the forest service, and to the Trust for Public Land, to figure out if there is an opportunity to do some kind of a rebuild, what that might look like, when that might happen,” he said, noting that it’s too early now to determine if it will be possible to rebuild the cabin.

The Association had already been planning preventative measures to avoid fire hazards in their huts. Some, like the South Pond Hut, will have live-in caretakers. Other will be heated with propane, thus avoiding dangers posed by wood stoves. Where wood stoves are necessary, the Association plans to provide how-to guides so that guests can avoid accidents. “In this instance, it was certainly not negligence of any guest user,” Thompson said. “The hut was unoccupied when this happened.”

In an email message on Thursday morning, Thompson called on VHA’s followers and members for support. “The loss of South Pond is no doubt a significant setback to our young organization, but we will not dwell on it for long,” the email read. “We are resilient, and we are more focused than ever.”

Click here for more information about Vermont Huts’ mission and their Chittenden Brook Hut which, permit pending, is still expected to go live this summer.

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Top photo courtesy of Kate Wanner, project manager for the Trust for Public Land

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of acreage that was purchased by the Trust for Public Land. The hut sat on 2,700 acres of land, not 27,000.