RAPPAHANNOCK, Va. -- Since April, Virginia's Rappahannock river towns have experienced three major fires, disasters that local fire leaders said they've never seen happen this closely together before. The string of tragedies has brought attention to the challenges rural fire departments face in keeping communities safe.
“Oh, it was about a minute," said Joey Reinhardt about the time in between running the shop and jumping into action to save lives.
Reinhardt, a lifelong resident of Tappahannock, owns a business directly across the street from the town block on Prince Street that was destroyed by massive flames Friday.
He also doubles as a 33-year member of the Tappahannock Volunteer Fire Department.
“I was at work when we initially received the call and just went out and straight across the street to make sure that the building was empty," Reinhardt said. "Then we did a walk around just to get an idea of the scope and then started evacuating some of the neighboring businesses that had vehicles parked behind the building to make sure to get those out of the way."
Once the blaze started to rapidly grow and spread, Reinhardt said it wasn't an easy battle. Crews had to pull water from the Rappahannock River, with access only a block away. He said without it, there wouldn't have been enough supply because the town's water system pipes are small and aging.
"Most of them are about a six-inch diameter pipe, and so it's very limited how much water can flow through a six-inch pipe. Most of these hydrants can support one fire truck," he said. “You get older buildings and a small town with older water systems, and you have to really worry when you have the big fire how you're going to handle it.”
Reinhardt said, for as long as he can remember, he and other firefighters have always been concerned about how vulnerable the Prince Street buildings were to catch on fire.
“It was not a question of if, but when," he said.
The sense of impending threat speaks to a larger fire problem in rural communities. In April, another Rappahannock river town, Kilmarnock, lost a city block to a deadly blaze.
A common denominator in both fires was a lack of fire suppression systems.
“Most of these buildings that burned in Tappahannock and Kilmarnock did not have sprinkler systems in the buildings, and there weren't many fire breaks between the buildings to keep those types of fires from jumping from one building to the next," said Richmond County Fire Chief Randy Passagaluppi.
Richmond County was one of several agencies that responded to the fires in Tappahannock and Kilmarnock.
Passagaluppi said the fire code at the time when those buildings were erected didn't require preventative technology and installing it retroactively would be cost prohibitive to business owners and residents.
"A suppression system is only good when you have a fire, and everybody hopes they never have a fire," he said.
Another concern for smaller volunteer fire departments is that major fires will pull in extra resources from surrounding agencies across the region.
For example, during a July 4th fire in Richmond County that destroyed a historic house and several cars, eight additional departments responded to assist. It was a similar case in Tappahannock and Kilmarnock.
What would happen if the Northern Neck needed to handle another significant fire at the same time?
"Most departments don't pull all the resources. They'll leave a couple pieces back for that 'just in case' scenario," he said. “But that does create a challenge. You've always got to think about that in the back of your mind, especially when you're the chief.”
Passagaluppi said he also worries about reduced manpower in his fire department. He has about 60 members but could use up to 15 more.
A shortage among volunteer firefighters isn't unique to the Northern Neck. Nationwide, the number of volunteers dropped from 884,600 in 1985 to 682,000 in 2021, according to the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.
The organization said the Commonwealth, where 70% of all firefighters are volunteers, is facing a "critical" shortage.
"It's definitely harder to recruit people today than it was years ago," Passagaluppi said. "I don't know how the younger generation feels about helping out or doing something for free. Lots of people have so many commitments nowadays into so many different aspects of their life."
Limited volunteers combined with limited funding from the local and state levels have made it nearly impossible to ramp up fire prevention education and enforcement programming. Passagaluppi said the resources he does receive are prioritized to go toward responding to emergencies.
"We don't have enough people to do all the programs we want to do with the education with the fire prevention," he said. "And a lot of our funding comes from the citizens. We do fund drives. They help pay for our apparatus and our equipment."
According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), rural communities are generally less educated on fire safety because they lack the money to spearhead large-scale prevention campaigns.
Karen Berard-Reed with NFPA said programming is especially necessary for smaller towns because they're more prone to fires and fire deaths.
NFPA statistics from 2017 showed:
- On average across the country, there were 4.5 fires per 1,000 people
- In communities with a population below 2,500, there were 10.8 fires per 1,000 people
- The national average of civilian fire deaths was 10.9 per 1 million people
- In communities with a population below 2,500, there were 20.9 civilian fire deaths per 1 million people
Reinhardt said there are countless benefits to living in rural communities, but a downside is understanding fire prevention lags compared to bigger cities and suburbs.
He said county and town government leaders will never have the leverage to support small town firefighting the way it should be supported, and change may only be possible with attention from the General Assembly.
"The Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck, and over to the Eastern Shore-- we have so many of the same problems. But when it gets to the state legislature, there are only three or four lawmakers that are trying to advocate for these rural areas. Whereas the Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond areas, it's easy for them to just turn a blind eye because we don't have the population to really push for that change," Reinhardt said.