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Rebuilding After Town Square Fires Costly And Complicated

Rosie

Indiana's historic town squares are considered the hearts of communities throughout the state.

But in recent years, several have been damaged by large fires.

Officials say it’s no coincidence — construction materials and the age of the buildings make them susceptible.

That's creating a dilemma for communities because the process of rebuilding is costly and complicated.

A Lifelong Dream Reduced To Ashes

Rosie Bridges always dreamed of owning a T-shirt shop of her own.

"I started in my parents' basement," Bridges says. "I didn't know if I'd ever be able to move to town."

She was celebrating 26 years of business on Loogootee's historic town square in November when her store burned to the ground.

Scroll through the photos to see the Loogootee town square before and after the fire.

[slideshow2]

"We open at 10 and I got a phone call from the lady who works for me," Bridges says. "And she was screaming saying that my store was on fire and I was here within five minutes and the windows — it was just fire coming out the windows and it was horrible."

 The site made Bridges sick to her stomach—decades of a dream reduced to ash.

 "I've been here 31 years and it's a small community. Everybody pulls together," she says. "And that's just what we're going to do."

Bridges’ store was one of six businesses damaged or destroyed by the quickly spreading fire.

At least six departments and more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze.

More than a month later, the debris still stands in the heart of town.

"Hopefully we'll get them rebuilt and Loogooteee will look toward the future," Mayor Noel Harty says.

Business owners are trying to decide whether or not to rebuild. Harty will meet with them Monday to discuss their plans.

Why Town Squares Can Easily Burn

The small town of Paoli faced similar problems four years ago, when a fire in the old Orange County Bank damaged the entire southwest corner of the square in 2010.

"Within minutes, the conditions deteriorated to just the blackest smoke you've seen in your life," Town Council President Mark Jones says. Jones helped fight the fire.

The bank had been renovated several times but was originally built in the late 1800s.

Scroll through the photos to see the Paoli town square before and after the fire.

[slideshow4]

Jones says that’s common of many buildings found on town squares, making them especially susceptible to fire. He says construction materials such as dry, old wood can burn with ease.

"There’s generally no firewalls in between buildings, so it spreads easily," Jones says. "Many times you have multiple roof systems in the things because over the years when they come in and re-do the roof, they would just build over the old roof. And those are places for fire to hide and burn before you even know it’s there."

State Fire Marshal James Greeson says many of the original buildings still stand in town squares throughout the state. In some cases, those buildings were built a century ago, before there were fire and building codes in place.

"So when those buildings were built, there weren’t requirements for sprinkler systems, alarm systems and different sorts of fire prevention that we have today," Greeson says. "Over the years, the heating systems, the electrical systems have gotten older in those buildings and demand for power and demand for energy has grown. In some cases, we find there’s been some breakdown in the wiring or an overused heating system."

After Paoli's massive fire, the debris sat on the corner for about a year. Eventually Hoosier Uplands Economic Development Corporation purchased the land and erected a new building called The Phoenix.

"We're very grateful to them," Jones says. "I don't know what we would have done. We may still be sitting here with an empty space."

Legislation Allows Towns Some Protection In Event Of Fire

There is legislation in Indiana that gives towns some protection if a business owner decides not to rebuild or demolish a structure following a fire.

The Greencastle City Council passed an ordinance opting into the program shortly before a large fire damaged four buildings near its courthouse square in 2013.

Scroll through the photos to see the Greencastle town square before and after the fire.

[slideshow3]

Greencastle Mayor Sue Murray says the ordinance, which involves paying a fee, allows a city or town access to insurance dollars if a building owner walks away after a fire occurs in a city or town's jurisdiction.

"The city or town would have some recourse in terms of being able to access some insurance dollars that would have gone, or potentially would go, to that building owner to fix or to raise that building," Murray says.

Greencastle didn’t have to rely on that money because the business owners decided to rebuild.

But Murray says it gives officials peace of mind.

"People’s intentions the day of a fire are said with such determination that we’ll rebuild, we’ll be back," she says. "Sometimes that becomes a very difficult, and for some, very arduous task. So this at least allows a city or town to be able to have some dollars available to help remediate the issue."

Future For Loogootee Businesses Still Unclear

Back in Loogootee, it’s unclear how the small town plans to recover from its devastating fire.

There are questions about what funding is available to remove the block full of debris as business owners still sort out insurance issues. 

Harty says he's met with several organizations who might be interested in offering financial assistance to help with the rebuilding process.

And at least one business owner plans to reopen her shop.

"We're going to get it cleaned up and we're going to rebuild and keep going," Bridges says.

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