By DWIGHT OTWELL Tuesday, July 24, 2012 8:05 PM CDT
Ranger – A building in the middle of Ranger Flea Market burned to the ground July 18.

Joey Nasworthy, who owns a produce stand at the market behind Ranger Convenience Store, said he was leaving when he saw black smoke pouring out of the building.

“Smoke ignited Styrofoam on the roof, and the fire went through the whole roof at once,” he said. “No one was inside.” A free-standing building in the center of a U-shaped series of connected buildings caught fire. Most of the free-standing building that burnt to the ground had been used as an auction house.

Nasworthy said a fire started at the produce stand in another section of Ranger Flea Market, but firefighters quickly put it out and prevented the fire from destroying the remaining buildings, Ranger Convenience Store on one side and Foster’s Flea Market on the other.

Decker’s Flea Market is across U.S. 19/129 from the other two flea markets.

Foster’s Flea Market was destroyed in a fire on July 30. It has since been rebuilt.

Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corp. workers cut electrical wires loose from poles serving the market. After the fire was extinguished by local volunteer fire departments, all that was left were charred poles and remains of chairs. Smoke poured from the rubble, but no one was injured.

Jeff Kiska said the origin of the fire must have been electrical. He sold lumber out of one side of the auction house, but he had moved most of his lumber out of the building.

“It seems like the fire started in the auction house,” he said. “I ran in and got my iPod. I didn’t have time to grab my chainsaw because the flames were coming over the roof. I have never seen anything burn so fast.”

Judy Thrasher said she was at her daughter’s house nearby and could see black smoke from a distance.

“Flames were 10-12 feet in the air, and the only fire truck there when I arrived was Murphy [Volunteer Fire Department]. More than likely, it was electrical [in origin]. There was a flame in another part of the U-shape but they put it out.”

A flame was still coming out of the top of a power pole in the middle of a destroyed part of the market as Thrasher spoke.

Burned quickly

Ranger Volunteer Fire Department Chief Frank Mariano said when he arrived the building was fully involved. Firefighters knocked out the fire quickly and kept it from spreading. He doesn’t know the cause yet.

Garry Potter, who has a business at Decker’s Flea Market, said, “I came over the hill and saw smoke and said, ‘Oh God – not Decker’s.’ ”

Cherokee County assistant fire marshal Steve Baumgartner said he has no idea how the fire started.

“It was on the ground by the time I got there,” he said. “Everything went fast. It was an old, old building.”

It is thought that the cause of the fire almost one year ago that burned Foster’s Flea Market to the ground was that something was done to the wiring of a refrigerator at a fruit stand, Baumgartner said.

Cherokee County Building Inspector Brian Dillon said Foster’s old market and Decker’s market across the street are pre-code. They were built when the present building codes were not in effect, grandfathering them in. When Foster’s rebuilt, they pulled the proper permits.

“From what I gather, counties are having issues with flea markets across the state,” Dillon said.

“Flea markets started in the 1970s and most are in rural jurisdictions. There is little oversight. They are often thrown together and added onto as time goes on.”

If the Ranger Flea Market or any other flea market adds anything back, they will have to meet the state building code for commercial structures, Dillon added.

Extinguishers added

Jerry Decker, owner of Decker’s Flea Market, said his business has never had a fire. His uncle started the business, and some vendors have been with the market for 35 years.

“We try to keep everything updated and clean [with few extension cords],” he said.

Decker said his electrical wiring was done by professionals. After the Foster’s Flea Market fire a year ago, he had the fire chiefs of Bellview and Ranger check his market for fire safety.

“We are a family-oriented market and want to keep it safe,” Decker said. “Anyone can walk through at any time.”

Decker said he has exit signs posted all over the market, and he added another 10 fire extinguishers after the Foster’s fire to give his flea market a total of 24 fire extinguishers.

Cherokee County Fire Marshal W.C. King said as far as he knows, the Ranger market fire wasn’t foul play. For any fire investigation involving a structure, you investigate from the area of least damage to the area of greatest damage, and then try to determine the cause.

“When something burns to the ground, you don’t have that starting point,” he said.

“An electrical fire is usually something an individual has done with makeshift cords or something else to cause an overload somewhere. Unless you have a positive cause of fire that you can prove, you can’t say what the cause is. Anything else is speculation.”

In flea markets, fire marshals inspect to find problems, which are usually created by a vendor and not the owner. An owner can say they didn’t cause the problem or they can correct it, but then the vendor can go back and do it again.

“It is hard to keep flea markets compliant,” King said. “To my knowledge, [the flea markets] were built prior to building code requirements. Many started out as a shed.

“They were grandfathered in and they used materials that are going to burn if a fire starts. The problem is that if a fire starts, the nature of the construction leads to a building burning quickly. They usually don’t have ceilings or if there is an attic, it is usually empty. It is not that they are fire hazards. It is that what they are built of is more prone to burn quickly.”

Fire extinguishers are required at flea markets. It is the owner’s responsibility to prevent overcrowding. If a fire marshal finds overcrowding, he can correct it.

Concerning Decker’s Flea Market, King said, “Jerry Decker is very conscientious about things like [fire safety].”

Every three years

In North Carolina, fire inspection doesn’t involve inspecting the building itself. They look at electrical outlets and receptacles to see what is plugged into them, and they look at electrical panels. They also look for exit signs if it is a building required to have them. They also inspect for the proper number of fire extinguishers and where they are located.

A basic flea market is considered a mercantile designation. Inspections are required every three years.

“Cherokee County doesn’t write citations for violations of the fire code, so there is no financial penalty,” King said.

When a fire inspection is done, they note what needs to be corrected and the business owner signs it. Fire inspectors ask them how long it take for them to correct it, which is noted. They get a copy and later designate when the corrections were done.

“The board [of commissioners] at the time wanted it to be an honor system,” King said.

The business owners must pay the county for every fire inspection.

Responding to the fire were the Bellview, Hiwassee Dam, Murphy, Ranger and Wolf Creek volunteer fire departments along with the Union County (Ga.) Volunteer Fire Department. The Cherokee County Rescue Squad and Cherokee County Emergency Medical Service also responded.