Lightning strikes twice

Homes in Sperryville, Castleton damaged by storm-driven attic fires

Two Rappahannock County homes were struck by lightning and damaged by ensuing four- to six-alarm fires within an hour of each other by thunderstorms that passed through the region Sunday afternoon (July 21).

Firefighters aim high to knock down the fire in Peola Mills Sunday. Photo by Kathy Krometis.
Firefighters aim high to knock down the fire in Peola Mills Sunday. Photo by Kathy Krometis.

Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department chief and county emergency services coordinator Richie Burke said the two calls — one on Turkey Ridge Road in Castleton and the other on Nethers Road in Sperryville — came in only 30 minutes apart.

Burke, who’s been answering calls for nearly 30 years, said he couldn’t remember another instance like this, adding that there were also other lightning strike-based fires in surrounding counties that afternoon.

Burke said he’d sent some Sperryville personnel out on mutual-assistance duty to help the Castleton company on Turkey Ridge Road when he received a second call. The Castleton property, which is registered to Diana Miller, caught fire after lightning struck and ignited the attic just before 4 p.m., Burke said.

Miller, whose phone lines were apparently also knocked out by the lightning strike, had to call 911 from a neighboring property, Burke said.

Castleton’s volunteer firefighters were at the site within six minutes of the call, Burke said, but it took the Amissville and Sperryville companies 20 minutes each to reach the fire. “It’s a long way to go through the county to get there sometimes,” Burke said, a reference to the Castleton area’s enduring lack of direct routes.

Smoke from an attic fire caused by a lightning strike almost completely covers the home of Kim Bealle and Jim Offutt. Photo by Kathy Krometis.
Smoke from an attic fire caused by a lightning strike almost completely covers the home of Kim Bealle and Jim Offutt. Photo by Kathy Krometis.

Burke said that because of the construction of the house, it was also difficult to get directly at the fire, requiring firefighters to attack it mostly from the house’s exterior. Despite the heavy damage to the house — Burke estimated it was “roughly 90-percent destroyed” — the companies were able to save several of the rooms, including one of the bedrooms.

Burke added that the Castleton company has returned to the site several times since Sunday to hose down some still-smoldering hot spots. Four different companies — from Castleton, Amissville, Sperryville and Culpeper — responded.

Only 30 minutes after the Turkey Ridge call went out, another lightning strike caused a second fire at the home of Kim Bealle and Jim Offutt, in Peola Mills. Neither Bealle nor Offutt was home when the fire started; fortunately, a couple of passing hikers spotted smoke, banged on the door and then ran to the neighbors, Chrissy Witscher and Chris Mosley, who called emergency services.

The Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue company was the first crew to arrive, and though the home was damaged by the fire, Burke said the damage was less than in the Castleton fire.

“Older houses sometimes don’t burn as quickly,” Burke said, adding that the metal roof and foam insulation in the Sperryville attic stifled the air flow and prevented the fire from spreading as rapidly as in the Castleton attic. “That house is still very salvageable.”

Bealle and Offutt were on vacation at the time of the fire, and while there were no human casualties, one of their cats perished in the fire. Personnel from companies in Sperryville, Chester Gap, Flint Hill and Madison responded to the Peola Mills fire.

One of the many firefighters who responded to Sunday’s attic fire in Sperryville makes his way up to the top floor. Photo by Kathy Krometis.
One of the many firefighters who responded to Sunday’s attic fire in Sperryville makes his way up to the top floor. Photo by Kathy Krometis.

Neighbor Kathy Krometis witnessed the fire and subsequent response, and said she was incredibly impressed by the display of “compassion and humanity” of the fire and rescue personnel. “I just got a fundraiser check from the SVFD in the mail the other day,” Krometis said, “and I witnessed firsthand what it is these people do.”

Krometis said visibly exhausted fire and rescue personnel kept inquiring about valuables still inside the house, and made repeated trips back inside to retrieve furniture, photos — and the couple’s cat, apparently overcome by smoke. She, and several of the rescue personnel, tried in vain to revive the animal, Krometis said.

“This is still a tragedy, but it’s not just that — it’s also about how we celebrate being a small community . . . You could see on every person’s face who was fighting this fire that this . . . was personal,” Krometis said.

Were it not for the passing hikers’ alertness and their neighbors’ immediate action, Bealle said by phone on Tuesday, “our house surely would have burned down with all three of our cats in it.” She and Offutt, she said, are still “finding it hard to believe all of the amazing things people did for us.”