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Fire devastates 67-year-old lumber business

Fire devastates 67-year-old lumber business

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Firefighters took turns huddling in a nearby hair salon for warmth and coffee early Tuesday; battling a fire at Wise Lumber and Supply in Wise, Virginia. for more than four hours in the bitter cold took its toll.

Meanwhile, owner Thomas Kennedy watched from the parking lot as the main building of his family business was destroyed.

“It’s been like a bad dream,” Kennedy told the Bristol Herald Courier later Tuesday. “Ever since reality set in today, it’s been a nightmare.”

Kennedy heard about the fire 10 minutes before midnight and arrived at the same time as the Wise Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire station is just a few hundred feet from Wise Lumber. But, as a volunteer department, nobody was at the station. According to Fire Chief Duane Phillips, a passerby called in the blaze.

There was a heavy fire on both floors by the time firefighters arrived, Phillips said. As a result, it was impossible to fight the fire from the inside out.

The Norton Volunteer Fire Department was also called in to help. In all, more than 30 firefighters worked in rotation to control and eventually quash the flames.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Phillips said.

Based on his experience with buildings, Kennedy said he suspects it was an electrical fire and the weather was a factor.

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“It appears that the hot spot was around the electrical panel,” he said. “A lot of times you get subzero or single-digit temperatures [and] it puts a lot of stress on the electrical system.”

Single-digit temperatures made fighting the fire more difficult, too. In addition to rotating firefighters to avoid frostbite, the department had to make sure its hose lines didn’t freeze.

Conley Holbrook, a former Wise fire chief, was taken to the hospital due to chest pains during the fire. Phillips said Holbrook was in stable condition, but he declined to provide additional details. There were no other injuries.

“We’re very thankful nobody was hurt,” Kennedy said.

Wise Lumber and Supply started 67 years ago and has been in the same location on Norton Road since 1979. Earl Hilton owned the business when Kennedy’s grandfather, Tom Aker, went to work for him in the late 1950s, Kennedy told the Herald Courier. Kennedy’s grandfather and uncle bought the business in 1970.

“They ran it for years until I took over,” said Kennedy, who also owns two property investment companies.

Kennedy has a 14-year-old son and 10-year-old twins who work at Wise Lumber occasionally. He hopes to keep the company in the family.

Despite the fire, Kennedy said it should soon be business as usual. The site of the fire contained the sales counters and display area for Wise Lumber’s building supply business. But the company also has five warehouses — three on the property where the fire happened and two up the road — that were untouched.

“We’re setting up a temporary office just up the street and hope to move an office trailer in [over] the next two to three days,” he said. “We still have warehouses full of building materials. The Fire Department did an excellent job containing everything to the main building.”

While he described the fire as devastating, Kennedy added that there has been a tremendous outpouring of support from the local community.

“It’s just absolutely unbelievable, the people who have shown up today to offer help in any way,” he said.

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