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Memories of Fire Burn a Year Later

Friday marks the first anniversary of one of Raleigh's worst fires, a blaze so destructive it prompted the state and the city to change their building codes.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Homes have been rebuilt and city and state building codes changed to prevent another tragedy like the Pine Knoll Townes fire. Residents, though, say memories of that fire a year ago are burned into their memories.

On Feb. 22, 2007, a wind-whipped fire raced through the Pine Knoll Townes complex off Capital Boulevard, damaging or destroying 38 units.

Investigators blamed discarded smoking materials for sparking the fire. Other factors contributing to fire's rapid spread were pine straw next to the buildings, vinyl siding and soffit material that allowed the flames to get into attics and onto roofs.

"A careless act, a human act, led to millions of dollars of damage and really endangered a lot of people's lives," Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said.

"Anything could happen in any community. We were just the unfortunate community that time," homeowner Gene Johnson said.

Johnson said that although there is no visible damage to the townhouse he and his fiancee share, memories of the fire were burned into their heads. Sometimes, the simplest things– like baking a cake in their oven – can set off the memories, Johnson said.

"Last Tuesday, I was driving to the post office on Capital Boulevard. Six fire engines came the other way," Johnson said. "Immediately, you are reminded of this."

However, the Pine Knoll Townes complex is much the same as it was before the fire. In September 2007, all but half a dozen owners moved back into rebuilt townhomes.

"It is exactly as it was before, except the mulch used to be pine straw," Johnson said.

The soffits, or the paneling underneath buildings' gutters, on new residential construction must now be made of a fire-resistant material, according to the state building code. The vinyl siding that once covered the homes at Pine Knolls is gone.

"That's exactly how our house caught on fire," Johnson said. "It went up the siding, into the soffit, into the attic, and then burned everything and was able to get into other houses from there."

Hillsborough is considering banning pine straw from being placed, even temporarily, within 10 feet of any commercial buildings or multifamily residences. The town board was expected to discuss the proposal at a work session Monday and vote on on it March 10.

Dry, windy weather, like that the Triangle has been experiencing recently, also contributed to the fire, McGrath warned.

"Just be cognizant," McGrath cautioned all city residents. "The conditions are ripe – and very, very dry – for the spread of fire."