CULLOWHEE – An investigation is underway to determine the cause of a fire that broke out Thursday morning (Nov. 21) in the commercial strip in the center of the Western Carolina University campus and caused heavy damage to three popular businesses.
No injuries were reported during the fire. All university functions remained operational throughout the duration of the incident, and the university did not cancel classes. Portions of Centennial and Central drives were closed while firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.
“We certainly are grateful that no one was injured during this incident, neither the owners and employees of the businesses nor the firefighters and first responders who rushed to the scene,” said WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher. “Our thoughts are with our friends and neighbors who own and work at these establishments.”
The fire, which resulted in heavy smoke pouring from the affected businesses, was reported shortly after 9 a.m., and was extinguished by approximately 12:30 p.m., emergency officials said. A total of 21 units from WCU, from the counties of Jackson, Haywood, Macon, Swain and Buncombe, and from the Qualla Boundary responded to the blaze, including firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical care teams.
The initial call reporting the fire was received by Jackson County Emergency Management. Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department was in charge of the response operation.
The fire damaged three dining establishments in the commercial area of Centennial Drive – a Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe. The businesses are located on the ground floor of the two-story structure. The second story of the building, which had contained apartments until several years ago, was unoccupied.
The property affected by the fire is owned by the WCU Endowment Fund and leased to the business owners. The structure was formerly the site of a longtime campus landmark, the Townhouse restaurant, a popular gathering place for students, faculty and staff from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s.
By late Thursday afternoon, Central Drive had reopened to traffic. The portion of Centennial Drive in front of the commercial area remained closed to traffic as fire and law enforcement officials, including the State Bureau of Investigation, went through the building searching for hot spots and beginning the process of determining a cause and a point of origin.
Representatives of the State Construction Office and N.C. Department of Insurance are expected on the scene on Friday (Nov. 22) to assess the structural integrity of the building and begin the process of conducting a financial assessment of the damages. University officials said they do not know how long that process may take.
Belcher, who was at an alumni event in Florida on Thursday, monitored the situation as it unfolded.
“I am pleased to see that the emergency management processes we have put into place seemed to work very well,” he said. “The flow of communication to campus went well. Our people responded appropriately, and I am thankful for the response by area firefighters, law enforcement agencies and first responders with whom we have mutual aid agreements.”
Additional communication to the campus and community will be released as situations warrant.