By Alex Bridges
MAURERTOWN -- A fire destroyed Shenandoah County's historic Alms House at the County Farm early Sunday morning.
Dispatchers received a call at 5:42 a.m. and numerous fire and rescue crews responded to find flames and smoke coming from the building at 192 County Farm Road, known locally as the Alms House, according to information from John Collins, a spokesman for the Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Department.
The Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter had been using part of the county-owned building to provide temporary housing for area homeless people.
County Administrator Mary Beth T. Price recalled seeing the fire when she arrived at the scene shortly after the emergency crews. Most of the members on the Board of Supervisors also went to the fire scene. Price received a call around 6 a.m. alerting her to the fire.
"When I got there shortly after it was fully engulfed and it was bad," Price said that afternoon.
Smoke alarms had alerted two people who were asleep inside the building. Both people escaped through a first-story window. Emergency workers took them to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital. Collins said one of the occupants suffered minor, non-life threatening injuries. Plans were being made to help the residents left homeless but had not been finalized, Collins said.
Representatives with the Alliance met Sunday afternoon to discuss the situation, Price said.
Brick walls in several parts of the building collapsed and the metal roof fell in on the structure. Collins pointed to the collapsed portions of the building. Flames also had severed a power line leading into the building.
Incident Commander J.T. Thomas, a firefighter for the Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Department declared the blaze under control around noon. Smoke continued to billow from the structure and flames burned inside into Sunday afternoon.
When firefighters arrived they went into the building from the north end to search for anyone inside, Collins said. Firefighters stopped the search when they learned everyone had left the building. The incident commander pulled crews out of the building because the fire had grown.
"The only thing they could do was try to fight it from the outside," Collins said.
What caused the blaze and how it started remain under investigation by Fire Marshal David Ferguson. The fire appeared to have created more damage to the south end of the building, he pointed out.
"Obviously, a building this old, if the newest part was from the 1850s, there's a lot of dry wood in there so there's a lot that can burn, especially when it's 8,000 square feet," Collins said.
Chief Gary Yew, of the Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue, said deputies with the Sheriff's Office arrived before emergency crews and found the bulk of the blaze coming from porches on the south end of the structure.
Collins commented on the value of smoke detectors and noted that the devices helped save more than a dozen in fires over the past two years.
"We always stress those and this is another example that they do work," Collins said.
A crew will remain at the scene to keep watch on the fire to make sure it doesn't spread to nearby barns and other buildings, Collins said. It could take days for the fire to burn itself out.
Ferguson is interviewing the occupants and witnesses to the fire as part of his investigation, Yew said.
The two-story structure was built in 1829 to house the area's needy people. Other sections were added over the years. The Alliance for Shelter has used the building to provide temporary or transitional housing for those people in need. The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a memorandum of agreement with the Alliance and People Inc. to rehabilitate and renovate the building for transitional housing.
Yew said the condition of the building as it burned prompted the decision to pull back.
"We had to make a decision to let a lot of it go," Yew said. "It was just too unsafe ... There's always the threat of structure collapse."
Yew pointed out a chimney that firefighters feared could collapse.
"You can see in the original part of the building a chimney that's probably 35 feet, 40-feet tall, and we were always worried about which way that was gonna go," Yew said. "Obviously it's still stable but that prevented us from getting close enough to get aggressive, to try to do anything."
Crews had to bring water in from the Toms Brook-Maurertown Sanitary District lines because there was no way to connect near the building.
"Of course a lack of water supply hindered us in the beginning," Yew said.
Emergency workers from volunteer agencies in Toms Brook, Woodstock, Edinburg, Conicville, Strasburg, Orkney Springs and Middletown, as well as the county's Department of Fire and Rescue, responded to the fire. The Sheriff's Office and the Virginia Department of Transportation controlled traffic. Yew estimated that 50 fire and rescue workers were on the scene.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org