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Fire cause remains unknown

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Residents of the Briarleigh Court apartments, forced out by a Jan. 9 fire that consumed one section of the building, find themselves pining for home two weeks later.

Residents find themselves in different situations after the blaze broke out in one wing and destroyed 10 apartments — some are staying with family, but a few remain in the motel rooms where they sought emergency shelter.

While fortunately no fatalities arose from the fire, it has displaced 37 residents for at least several weeks.

No definite timeframe has emerged for their eventual return to the independent living complex for the elderly and disabled, sponsored by Rural Development and managed by Landura Management Associates of Winston-Salem, N.C., which has 5,500 housing units in 10 states.

The Displaced

May Myers is living with family on Little Vine in Carroll County, and besides having a cold this week, seemed in good spirits.

She lived close to where the fire started and only got out after someone broke down her door and roused her from her sleep around 4 a.m.

"I'll be glad to get back up there," she said. "Last I heard it would take about six months at least to get back in."

Due to the generosity of people from as far as Wytheville and Pulaski, much of her clothes and other personal items have been replaced.

"I've had people from everywhere bring stuff," she noted. "I have just about everything I need except for my furniture... and dishes."

She noted many of her medicines also burned in the fire. She paid more than $100 to replace some of them, and she hasn't gotten them all yet.

Leon Goad of the New Life Church in Hillsville in particular has helped meet the needs of fire victims, she noted.

The Red Cross temporarily paid for people to stay at motels.

"I'm living in Cranberry Apartments, but I'm really hoping that they'll build [Briarleigh Court] back soon and I can go back," said Lilly Webb.

She told management at her temporary place she would be going back to her home as soon as possible. The prospect of losing her deposit if she doesn't stay a year doesn't seem to bother her.

People at Cranberry have been nice to her, too. "I'm happy I have a nice warm place to stay."

But Briarleigh Court offers several advantages to its residents, like a laundry, post office boxes inside and, of course, she can live close to friends.

"Before I got moved, they were already tearing the patio out [at Briarleigh Court] and I felt they were going to get right to it."

Living in the wing where the fire broke out, Webb got lucky by having very little damage. She could even keep and reuse her furniture.

On the night of the emergency, Webb left most of her things behind.

Sheltering over at the Grover King VFW Post 1115, she appreciated the assistance that the Red Cross provided. They gave her a bag of personal hygiene items — so she could brush her teeth — and helped her stock up on things she'd need before she could retrieve her belongings.

Webb hasn't felt the need to ask for help from anyone other than her family.

"You know, my church has said, 'Is there anything you need?' and 'When you get ready to move let me know,'" she noted. "I'm an independent person and I used my family to help me move."

Before going to the shelter, Webb sat in her car watching emergency personnel fight the flames. "It gets me shook up thinking about it," she said.

Verlyn Brady's received temporary assistance for a motel, but that's run out.

He expects to have a place to go soon, but the motel room total added up, he said.

Brady had no insurance and he doesn't know if he can get help for the expenses he's run up while waiting.

A few other people are in the same predicament, he said.

"You'd think somebody would be responsible for everybody they put out," has been Brady's reaction.

Rural Development's Travis Jackson suggested that residents needing help in the long term could move to other apartment complexes that get support from his federal agency. He knows of two such facilities in Galax, and  Wytheville, and there are now vacancies at the Wytheville location.

That might be a more acceptable arrangement for them, he said. "If they're living in a motel that certainly might be a lot more reasonable to them."

Work Continues

The work to restore the 40 units continues, said Joshua Sutter, corporate manager with Landura.

The majority of the apartments needed to be cleaned after receiving smoke and water damage. The building was protected by firewalls that contained the blaze to that one section.

In the fire-damaged wing, those efforts will take longer because that part of the structure has to be torn down and rebuilt.

"The residents who wish to remain in the 10 units most directly affected by fire, water, smoke and structural integrity issues may be out for an extended timeframe. We are not sure how many months, as that section will essentially be rebuilt above the slab," Sutter wrote in response to questions from The Gazette. "Some preliminary demolition work has begun to prevent further damage..."

But it was only last Friday that several investigators conducted an extensive search of the unit where it is believed the fire started to try to determine its origin, Sutter said. Landura representatives hadn't received their copy of the report as of Wednesday.

Nor had an official damage estimate been arrived at, Sutter added.

Rebuilding cannot get started until both the insurance company and Rural Development sign off on the plans.

"We hope to get residents back into the parts of the building that were not severely damaged as soon as possible," Sutter wrote.  "Electrical and water supply have been restored already; however, there are a few remaining items to be completed to ensure health and safety prior to re-occupancy being possible."

After the building inspector and Rural Development give their approvals, Landura will let residents move back to the parts of the facility that do not require reconstruction.

Some Briarleigh Court residents have contacted Landura and shared information about their current housing arrangements, Sutter wrote. In general, he understands that many are staying with friends and relatives.

"Upon move-in, residents are encouraged to obtain renter's insurance in cases of disaster for their personal property and temporary housing as these are not part of our insurance coverage," Sutter said.

Though Landura has another apartment complex in Hillsville, Briarleigh Court residents cannot be housed there because it is administered through different state and federal housing programs. Sutter said residents can transfer to other Rural Development-sponsored housing in other places.

"At the time of the fire, there was one vacant unit, which a Briarleigh resident would qualify for," he said.  "We attempted to pursue the possibility of transferring residents with potential long-term housing needs to this property as units become available."

Letters of Priority Entitlement can be issued and allow displaced residents to go to the top of the waiting list of other housing facilities, subject to income and disability priorities, Sutter explained.

Universal Praise

The emergency services and community response to the fire has received universal praise from Briarleigh Court and governmental officials.

"The Town of Hillsville would like to publicly thank those organizations, businesses and individuals whose quick and professional response... prevented a potentially horrible tragedy and loss of life," the Jan. 19 message from town hall said. "We would also like to thank all those who have assisted in any way since then.

"Thank you from the mayor and council, employees, citizens and business of the Town of Historic Hillsville. May God bless you all."