Local News

Fire at Warrenton farm supply store still smolders

Posted February 3, 2011 5:33 a.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2011 11:10 a.m. EST

— A fire at a farm supply store in downtown Warrenton still smoldered Thursday, more than 12 hours after it started, prompting the closure of schools and evacuation of homes and businesses.

"It's gone. Southern States is gone. It's sad," said Milton Cooper, a Division of Motor Vehicles inspector who directed traffic during the fire in the store at 216 W. Franklin St.

Firefighters let the fire burn itself out Thursday because of concerns that spraying more water on the building would let chemicals run into the town's water supply, authorities said. The store sold hazardous and flammable materials, including fertilizer, aerosols, propane and ammunition.

"We were not sure exactly what all types of hazards we had in there, as far as chemical-wise, which we did not want to wash down into our water system and get into the creeks," Warren County Assistant Fire Chief Lee Edmonds said.

Health and safety concerns prompted authorities to close nearby businesses and schools and order homes evacuated. 

Mariam Boyd Elementary and Warren County New Tech High School were closed Thursday. Warren County High School, which served as an emergency shelter overnight, was open.

The closings and evacuations could last until Saturday. Initially, authorities evacuated about a dozen homes and businesses in a three-block radius around the store. Some residents were allowed to home Thursday, while other evacuees stayed at nearby hotels or with relatives.

Fire crews and a hazardous-materials team from Raleigh monitored the fire Thursday and were on hand to keep it from spreading.

The Southern States store, which sat in an old tobacco warehouse, was one of the oldest businesses in the town about 55 miles northeast of Raleigh.

"It had quite a number of employees. Of course, (it was) locally owned and operated by residents here in town," Mayor Pro Tem Woody King said. "It was, of course, a good retail establishment, so this is a tragedy."

Authorities said the fire started in the rear of the store, and they don't suspect foul play, although they haven't determined the cause. The State Bureau of Investigation arson team was helping local fire investigators.

Wind and flammable materials quickly spread the fire, which started after the store closed. At one point, flames stretched for nearly two blocks.

Crews from eight fire departments, including some from Virginia, battled the blaze and contained it to the Southern States store. The crackle of flames was punctuated by the occasional explosion of products in the burning store.

Town and county officials were expected to declare a state of emergency later Thursday. King predicted that his community would pull together.

"Warrenton is a strong town," he said. "It pulls together during disaster and tragedy, so I hope we will prove ourselves."