Moving forward

JUNIATA TERRACE – Nearly two months after a fire ripped through a block of row homes in the borough of Juniata Terrace, the community is still trying to understand what happened and plan for a possible next time.

Juniata Terrace Borough Council President Bill Conaway said out of the 28 homes in the row, 10 had severe damage, four had extensive damage, 12 had minor damage, one had very heavy smoke damage and one had no damage.

The fire started at 322 Terrace Blvd. around 6:30 p.m. on March 28 and quickly spread through the adjacent homes. Those firefighters on the scene battled the blaze for nearly six hours that evening.

“This was the worst residential fire in Mifflin County that I can remember,” Conaway said.

The wind made it difficult for the crews to keep the fire under control.

“In some ways we were lucky,” Conaway said. “The wind was blowing in a way that kept the fire from spreading to both sides of the row of homes. Other rows were saved because of the way the wind was keeping the fire moving in one direction.”

Conaway also believes that the direction of the wind kept the damage from being worse.

“At times it is hard to imagine something like this being worse than what happened,” Conaway said. “But if the wind and been blowing in an easterly direction, the row of homes to the east could have suffered damage or the same scenario to the south.”

In fact, the wind caused the house on the west end of the row to sustain the worst of the smoke damage because the smoke had nowhere else to go. Conaway said if the smoke would have had the chance to build more, the block could look a lot different today.

“My understanding is that the smoke was building and gaining so much heat in that last home that it could have spontaneously combusted,” Conaway explained. “Again, the way I understand it, if that would have happened fire crews would have simply worked to prevent it from spreading onto the hill or across the street.”

He also said this home has been completely gutted with the owner unsure of plans to rebuild or tear down. Conaway explained that several residents in the minorly damaged homes were able to move back in, while other residents are still unsure about what is going to happen.

“Many of the homes with minor damage have had the residents move back in,” he said. “These residents saw damage more in the roof for venting than damage from the fire or water.”

Conaway continued to say that the borough is not yet sure what is going to happen with all of the homes with damage. He said while some residents were able to move back in quickly, others have had to decide if they were going to move entirely.

“Four of the 10 severely damaged homes are going to be rebuilt, and that process has already begun in those cases,” Conaway explained. “Two may be rebuilt, but the rest of the homeowners are unsure about what they are going to do, or we, as a borough, have not yet heard.”

He said the borough has not had much communication between all of the residents because of the various insurance companies that have been involved since the fire. When the borough applied for disaster relief, it was determined that there was not enough damage overall to receive federal or state aid.

“We contacted all of our government representatives, they all were supportive, but could not get us any funding to help with a rebuilding process,” he said. “Local leaders have been willing to help in anyway they are possible, but we do not have a clear plan on what that means yet.”

The borough council has started the planning process to work on the possibility of rebuilding those homes where residents will not do anything, and then work on strategies to hopefully prevent something like this in the future.

“We are slowly starting to create some plans or come up with ideas to move forward as a borough,” Conaway said. “One of the things we would like to do as a council, is to sit down and talk with those firefighters involved, to get their input on how things could have helped them during the fire, which could help when we do create a prevention plan.”

He also said in the next few months more concrete plans will hopefully be put into motion.

“All of what we have talked about so far is stuff we would like to see happen,” he said. “Many meetings have been taking place to start this process and it will not be over quickly.”

Those Mifflin County residents who still wish to contribute to the relief fund or donate items can contact the United Way of Mifflin-Juniata or any branch of the Juniata Valley Bank.