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Though a definite determination will probably never be possible, authorities from Bedford County Fire and Rescue believe that a fire that destroyed a Forest shopping center on June 20 was caused from a cigarette, or the match that was used to light it.
From photographs submitted to the agency, Fire Marshal John Jennings determined that the fire began in some cardboard boxes at a deck behind the Blackwater Bike Shop. Those photographs were taken by Laura Layton who was inside the I.C. Studios tattoo shop at the strip mall when the fire began.
The fire at Jefferson Business Center on U.S. 221 in Forest was reported at 5:55 p.m.
“Someone from Goodwill came over and told us the building was on fire,” Layton said. “When we went out it just looked like the back deck (of the bike shop) was on fire. It looked like some cardboard boxes caught on fire.”
She said everyone who was inside the tattoo shop went outside. Layton said the fire consumed everything.
“It probably took less than five minutes for it to catch the roof,” she said.
Authorities stated Thursday that several bicycle tires caught fire and the heat quickly spread it to the roof area.
“It was a very unfortunate sight,” Layton said.
At one point, the owner of the tattoo shop tried to use a garden hose to put out the fire on the deck. The hose however, melted. “At that point it was pretty much a lost cause,” she said.
Layton said she had a camera in her purse and started taking pictures just in case someone needed them.
“My heart goes out to them,” she said of the store owners, adding she was visiting with friends who own the tattoo shop. “They had just been doing some remodeling and trying to get the shop up and ready (for business).”
The pictures she took would later prove invaluable to investigators.
Jennings praised Layton and the others who provided images from the first moments of the fire. “That has proven to be quite helpful in the investigation,” he said. That included being able to determine the progression of the fire.
Jennings said the cardboard boxes were from bicycles at the shop. The boxes, he said, had been placed outside to be thrown away.
“We’re never going to be able to answer with absolute certainty (what ignited it),” he said. “But there’s a good possibility it may have been related to smoking.”
Jennings said numerous cigarette butts were found outside the back of the building. He said investigators looked for other possible explanations — such as someone setting off fireworks — but couldn’t find any. “It’s obvious that an accelerant was not used to start the fire,” he said, adding that it appears to be accidental. He said the lack of accelerant at the scene as well as the fact that there weren’t multiple points of origin help lead to that conclusion.
“A lot of it is a process of elimination,” he said of the investigative procedures.
And the photographs from Layton saved a huge amount of investigative time helping to pinpoint just where the fire started.
Jennings said once the fire reached the roof it spread rapidly. The building, because of its size — just under 8,500 square feet — was not required to have sprinklers or a fire wall. By the time firefighters arrived, about seven minutes after dispatch received a flood of 911 calls about the fire, the building was engulfed in flames and it became important to just make sure embers from it didn’t spark other fires. “It was sort of a defensive effort at that point,” he said.
Stores at the shopping center included California Nails, Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance, Scene 3 Board Shop, Blackwater Bike Shop, I.C. Studios and Healthy Inspirations. The suites were each between 1,050 and 2,120 square feet.
Only the building’s brick walls were left standing. No one was injured, and firefighters from Bedford and Campbell counties as well as Lynchburg had the blaze under control by about 8 p.m. They closed U.S. 221 between Graves Mill and Cottontown roads until about 10:45 p.m. to make room for fire equipment and water lines.
Jeff Gray, the owner of Scene 3, said he had recently cancelled the skate shop’s insurance because he was planning to move to a new location on Kemper and 14th streets in downtown Lynchburg. The 36-year-old has a wife and two young children, he said, and his future livelihood is unclear..