Excerpts from the providencejournal.com:

When an alarm sounded just before 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, a fire was rapidly spreading unseen through the Harborside Inn on Block Island in New Shoreham, Rhode Island.

Block Island Fire Chief Chris Hobe was awake, 2½ miles away when the box alarm came in at 11:23 p.m. The dispatcher told him someone had seen smoke on Water Street. Hobe arrived on Water Street within four minutes. Smoke was pouring from an exhaust fan on the first floor. Soon, smoke was pushing out of the eaves. At 11:52 p.m., he requested a second alarm, signaling mutual aid – the first time ever on Block Island.

If the fire jumped to the other Victorian-era wood-frame buildings lining Water Street, it could easily destroy Block Island’s historic downtown. It was the very scenario he envisioned when he spent the previous winter working with mainland fire chiefs and local stakeholders to formulate the island’s first mutual aid plan. 

The Harborside Inn, originally known as the Pequot House, later became the Royal Hotel, may have been built in 1879. 

Today, the ornate 19th-century hotels and restaurants clustered along Water Street are a major part of Block Island’s charm. They can also be highly combustible. Like other structures of its era, it was constructed of balloon framing, a popular building style in the 1800s in which 2-by-4 studs were placed at intervals up the height of the building. Though it saved on lumber costs, no fire breaks existed between floors. A fire could start in the basement and quickly travel up the walls to the attic. When firefighters arrived on the scene, that was already happening. The fire had quickly reached the attic, above any sprinklers.

Once they knew everyone was safely out of the building, firefighters focused on keeping the fire from jumping to neighboring buildings, some just feet away and already warm to the touch. 

Adding to the concerns was the very real risk that they could run out of water: The island has 300,000 gallons of water storage, unlike mainland towns and cities, in which hydrants often have comparatively limitless draw. And from 13 miles offshore, it would take some time for help to arrive.

The Block Island Volunteer Fire Department only has about 20 members who are very active. Twelve people initially responded to the Harborside fire, but the number eventually grew to more than 30. A handful of junior members showed up to help. (Block Island’s fire department accepts junior members starting at 14, and lets them become full members at 16.) Two members piloted an infrared drone to detect hot spots. When the smoke grew so thick that firefighters couldn’t see where their water streams were hitting, they used radios to tell the battalion chiefs where to aim. 

As word of the fire spread, vacationing firefighters from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York showed up to see how they could help. Onlookers helped firefighters drag lines down to Old Harbor so they’d be ready to draw seawater when the time came. Others hurried to move propane tanks that fed nearby hotels and restaurants.

Hoses transported seawater to fight the fire after millions of gallons of freshwater had been used. Water officials feared exhausting the island's water supply and creating a "secondary crisis."

When his phone rang at 12:23 a.m., Chris Myers, the Block Island Ferry’s port captain, was asleep at home in Portsmouth when the dispatcher was telling him that a hotel on Block Island was burning, and they needed to get as many fire trucks out there as possible. 

Hobe had requested mutual aid at 11:52 p.m., less than half an hour after arriving at the fire, setting the still draft plan in motion. At midnight, a call went out to New England Airlines that has served the island for more than 50 years. Before long, two planeloads of firefighters were making the 12-minute flight out to the island.

Other firefighters headed to Point Judith and were transported to the island by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. Marine Task Force fireboats that would help pump water prepared to make the journey from Newport, Narragansett, and North Kingstown. Firefighters at the scene needed more ladder trucks that would have to arrive by ferry. The 13-mile journey out to the island would take about an hour, and that wasn’t counting the time it would take to start the boat’s engines, back it up to the dock, and load the trucks.  

By the time Myers got to Galilee, fire trucks and firefighters were already being loaded onto the boat. At 1:30 a.m., they pulled away from the dock and began steaming toward Block Island.  It was 2:30 a.m. by the time the ferry reached the dock. Two ladder trucks from North Kingstown and South Kingstown were the first to roll off. For hours, firefighters had fought to keep the blaze from spreading, and they’d held on long enough for help from the mainland to arrive. 

More boats were on the way. By the time dawn arrived, three ferries delivered two ladder trucks, two engines, an incident command post, and about 30 firefighters to the island. Seven firefighters who could only bring uniforms and helmets because of weight restrictions, arrived on New England Airlines planes.

Throughout the night and into dawn, after the initial crews grew weary, Coast Guard cutters and fireboats delivered about 60 firefighters to the island. They came from 15 departments. 

The 75 guests evacuated from the Harborside now needed somewhere to go. Many were in pajamas, leaving behind shoes, wallets, and car keys.

As the smoke intensified and the risk of the fire spreading grew, police also began evacuating people from neighboring buildings. Some bedded down in the lobby and bar of the National Hotel, which had set out blankets and pillows. The Block Island School became an emergency shelter. A school bus driver got out of bed and, within minutes, was shuttling stunned hotel guests to the impromptu shelter. Taxi drivers stopped collecting fares and focused on transporting people who’d been displaced. 

All night long, the water company superintendent had been closely watching how much water was left in the municipal supply. He wasn’t just worried about having enough to put out the fire. Draining the tanks would force the town to issue a boil water advisory that would further hamstring hotels and restaurants at one of the busiest times of the year. Plus, no one would be able to flush their toilets until the system recovered. At 3 a.m., he asked firefighters to switch over to seawater, which can corrode equipment. It wasn’t ideal, he knew, but the alternative would mean creating a secondary crisis.

Chief Hobe estimated that firefighters had used about 3 million gallons of water to fight the fire. It took two full days for the system to recover, but the town never ran out.

By noon on Saturday, the fire was largely extinguished. Some mainland firefighters were already leaving on the 10 a.m. ferry. The Harborside was a total loss. But no one was injured, and crews kept the fire from spreading to other buildings. 

During the winter, a coalition of departments from southern Rhode Island and even Connecticut met via Zoom to formalize a plan, exploring how response times and transportation methods would vary based on factors such as the time of day and sea and weather conditions. They brainstormed with state emergency management officials and the National Guard.

In June, fire boats from North Kingstown, Newport, Narragansett and Groton, Connecticut, did a trial run to test response times and make sure their fittings connected with Block Island fire hoses, and firefighters from North Kingstown and Narragansett held a practice run to map out how to pack the ladder trucks on the ferry boat. A tabletop exercise had been planned for September.

A new ladder truck is due to arrive on the island in January, and Hobe hopes to raise $10 million, with assistance from the town, to build a station with seven bays. He believes a large pump station is needed in Old Harbor to better protect downtown.