Two dead in River Street Fire

House was posted as uninhabitable with entrances sealed

Elkins, W. Va., March 10, 2021: Two people died last night in a fire that occurred in a house on River Street. The house had been closed and posted as uninhabitable by city fire and code enforcement officials. The decedents have not been identified, and the W. Va. State Fire Marshal is investigating.

The house, at 5 River Street, had been offered for sale at auction in 2019 for unpaid property taxes but did not sell. The State of West Virginia now holds a lien against the property for the unpaid taxes and associated fees.

This property came to the attention of city officials last year because of a large refuse pile in the backyard and signs of entry and occupation by unauthorized persons. Because there was no water service to the house, it was considered de facto uninhabitable under city code. The front porch was also missing, and the house was in a general and advanced state of disrepair.

City Code Enforcement Officer Phil Isner ordered the unauthorized occupants to vacate the premises, requested electrical power be disconnected, and—on June 1, 2020—posted signs on the front and back doors informing that the house had been determined to be unsafe. The signs prohibited occupancy until such time as an official finding that the identified hazardous conditions had been corrected.

At the time of the posting, Isner sealed the back door with plywood and screwed the front door shut. He also closed and locked the building’s windows. Isner and Elkins Fire Department Chief Tom Meader included the property on their near-daily rounds monitoring properties of concern.

Lacking title to the property or a court order authorizing further steps, the city had at this point exhausted its options for enforcement actions against this property. After the posting, the city offered to redeem the tax lien, take title of the property, and shoulder the cost of demolishing the decrepit structure, but this offer was declined by the owner of record.

The Elkins Fire Department responded to the fire and attempted to make entry, but the building was fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived. Because the fire occurred in a building with no electrical power or gas service, it seems to have resulted from human activity. As is always the case when fires result in deaths, the W. Va. State Fire Marshal is investigating and will be the only source of any further official statements regarding this matter.

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