Fire guts venerable family business, Wise Lumber

Stephen Igo • Jan 2, 2018 at 3:36 PM

WISE — Fire destroyed a downtown family business icon in the town of Wise, the venerable Wise Lumber & Supply Co. The emergency call went out minutes before midnight New Year's Day.

Wise Volunteer Fire Department Chief Duane Phillips said about 30 firefighters from his department and the Norton Volunteer Fire Department fought the blaze for more than four hours into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, battling bitterly cold temperatures as well as the inferno that gutted the main two-story building of Wise Lumber.

Temperatures dipped to about 2 degrees below zero in the Wise area during the early hours of Tuesday.

Phillips said his department, which happens to be practically next door to the business, called the Norton VFD for assistance because Norton has a bucket truck needed to tackle the blaze.

"It was, for the most part, fully engulfed when we arrived. We had heavy fire in the first and second stories of the building," Phillips said Tuesday. "It probably took us four-and-a-half hours to get it under control. It's a total loss. The walls are still standing, but the inside of it is totally gutted. We couldn't make an interior attack, it was strictly exterior, which is where Norton's assistance with their bucket truck was a big help to us."

The brutally frigid temperatures posed an extra challenge to firefighting crews, he added, an effort aided by another business across the street, Geneses Hair Salon.

"We had to rotate men in and out to a rehab area to stay warm. Geneses opened their building to help us keep warm, and that was a big, big help and we were really appreciative of that," he said.

Firefighting personnel were keeping an eye on the rubble Tuesday morning in case a hot spot might flare things back up, Phillips said.

"It is being monitored. We're pretty sure we got it all out. Of course with that extent of damage and the structural damage being unstable, we couldn't get anybody inside, so there is still the possibility of a flareup because the roof collapsed into the interior like it did. There's some steam and (smoke) still," he said.

One firefighter, retired and former Wise VFD Chief Conley Holbrook Jr., needed medical attention. Phillips said Holbrook showed up to assist the effort, suffered a medical problem of some sort and was taken to Norton Community Hospital for initial treatment before being transferred to Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport.

"We know he is stable at this time. They transferred him to Holston Valley for further medical evaluation," Phillips said. "Somebody told me a while ago that he was back to his usual grouchy self, so that's a good sign."

While much too early to pinpoint a cause, Phillips said his "educated guess" may be electrical in nature, particularly considering the frigid temperatures at play overnight Monday into Tuesday.

"Nothing there looks to be any foul play, really, but with that much damage there's no telling what caused it," he said. "Based on what little I could see at this time, I'm afraid to say for sure. There's a good possibility it was electrical, but without a good, thorough investigation we just don't know at this time. It's a good possibility the weather played a part in it."

Wise Lumber & Supply was established many decades ago by Tom Aker, and in recent years has been managed by his grandson, Thomas Kennedy.

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