Fire at HCC leaves sawmill in ruins
United States — By Caroline Klapper
With the ruins of the old sawmill building still smoldering on the Haywood Community College campus, work has already begun to find out what might have caused the blaze that destroyed the building Monday night.
A nearby resident called in the fire at 9:40 p.m. Monday, and by the time the Junaluska Fire Department arrived on the scene, Chief Charles Wood said the building was already “fully involved.”
He said the glow of the fire could be seen in the sky from the hill just past Tuscola High School as they approached.
“It had been burning for a little while,” Wood said. “In the state it was in when we got there, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do other than stand back and put out what was left.”
While the fire caused a total loss of the sawmill, leaving behind only wooden support beams and twisted metal, the rainy weather that night might have played a role in keeping nearby structures safe from the flames.
"It was probably a good thing there was rain because there were some trees around that building that could have caught fire,” he said.
Interim HCC president Dr. Bill Aiken said the weather was a blessing in the midst of misfortune, and he and the faculty and staff are thankful no one was hurt and the fire did not spread beyond the sawmill facility.
“There are a lot of trees on this campus,” Aiken said. “Had it not been for that rain, there would have been potential for the fire to spread all over the campus.”
Investigation is ongoing
The college was closed Tuesday for the safety of the students and to allow authorities to continue with the ongoing investigation, but Aiken said classes would resume Wednesday.
Local authorities were on the scene Tuesday, but it is not known yet what could have started the fire. However, Aiken said he’d been told SBI is being called in but will not arrive until Thursday.
As to questions about whether the fire could have been started deliberately, Aiken said didn’t have any information on that theory, and they would have to wait for authorities to do their job before jumping to any conclusions about what had happened.
The sawmill building hasn’t been used for any classes or programs on campus since the wood products program was discontinued nearly 10 years ago, but the leftover equipment in the building was sold off in a public auction on Sept 22.
Buyers had 30 days to remove any purchased equipment, and more than 80 percent of it had been removed before the fire.
“Some of it was left but not much, so that was a good thing,” Aiken said, adding “there was some work going on to remove equipment that day.”
Maggie Valley contractor Kyle Edwards, who purchased most of the sawmill components, said he was among those who still had equipment in the building when the fire started.
He was still trying to assess the loss Tuesday morning.
“They won’t let me in there yet,” Edwards said. “I lost a lot of heavy equipment besides my mills. I don’t know how much value it is yet, but it was well over $100,000. I won’t know until I get in there and look.”
Edwards was the largest buyer when the college sold items at the sawmill at public auction. The plan was to purchase the component pieces of the mill and relocate it to property in the Maggie area where Edwards estimated he would employ between 15 and 17 people running a sawmill.
Edwards has been moving the pieces out over the past several months, which is why he had equipment, including a large and small crane, a large bobcat and rubber tired vehicle on site.
“I had a few pieces out, but the major stuff is still in there,” Edwards said. “It was an awful hot fire.”
So far, whose insurance, if any, will pay for what has not been sorted out.
HCC had insurance on the building valued at $762,887 and the equipment valued at $880,349, for a total of about $1.5 million, but Aiken said the insurance company had not had the chance to assess the claim yet.
However, Director of Campus Development Bill Dechant said the college does have records on what had already been removed from the building and what was still left.
Edwards said he had some insurance on his equipment, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough to cover replacement. Even though he paid for the sawmill pieces, it was unknown who would be responsible for the pieces still remaining on the college property at the time of the fire.
Edwards was wistful about an opportunity that might not look so rosy after the fire.
“It would have helped the town, it would have helped me, it would have helped everyone,” he said regarding a chance to turn the closed sawmill into a local business.
The college’s plans for the sawmill building — whether it would be to retrofit the building for other purposes or demolish it — had not been decided.
“We had explored all different types of options, but I don’t think we’d really come to any conclusions as for what we were going to do with it. We had no definite plans,” Dechant said.
The fire caused problems off campus as well, knocking out power to about 700 people in Clyde, including the areas of Poison Cove Road, Walnut Valley Road, Ratcliffe Cove Road, Francis Farm Road and Stamey Cove Road.
Ken Thomas, manager of marketing and communications for Haywood EMC said the heat from the fire is what likely overloaded a transformer.
Power was restored to customers by 10:33 p.m.
Aiken said the campus is still without power in the buildings near the fire, but they hoped to be up to 90 percent operational by Wednesday. He added they aren't sure how long it will take to clean up the site.
Staff writer DeeAnna Haney and Editor Vicki Hyatt contributed to this story.