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Chester County Press

Disaster Emergency Declaration extended in Oxford

09/27/2023 02:54PM ● By Betsy Brewer Brantner

On Friday, September 22, Oxford Borough Council held a special meeting to discuss the fire on South Third Street that damaged businesses and left 90 people displaced.

Leslie and Ricardo, two of the people who were displaced by the fire, asked a question at the meeting that is on the minds of a lot of people—what started the fire?

The investigation is ongoing and under the purview of Chester County Fire Marshal John Weer. He will continue to study this fire to arrive at an answer.

Also on hand was B. J. Meadowcroft, the deputy fire chief of Union Fire Company, who took Leslie and Ricardo aside after the meeting to get their contact information and help them with their questions.

The young couple have two children, ages two and seven. Leslie works at Herr Foods and Ricardo has a long drive to Chester for work. They have an extended family close by which brings them comfort. Both are concerned about securing some of their important items from the fire, and once the clean-up begins, it is hoped that their items and important items belonging to other people will be found. The shock of the loss they incurred left them looking tired and anxious. 

Ricardo described the experience. 

“It felt like a dream,” he said. “We all went to bed at 10 and woke up to a loud knock on the door. We could see the flames from the window. It took no time at all for the building to be gone. Material things mean nothing. I just thank God we made it out alive. We are so thankful to the police that helped us out.”

Both hope to find another apartment in Oxford since their children are in school here. They were thankful to all those who helped and continue to help them. Like everyone in this small town, they have been amazed at the community support that has been offered to the fire victims.

Council convened the special meeting to approve a motion to adopt Resolution #1365-2023 Ratifying the Declaration of a Disaster Emergency, dated Sept. 14. They also approved a motion to Adopt Resolution #1366-2023 Continuing the Declaration of Disaster Emergency.

Borough manager Pauline Garcia-Allen explained, “There is still a lot of work to do so we are letting the declaration remain open-ended.”

In addition to the 90 people who were left displaced by the fire, four parcels, owned by three property owners, had to be demolished because of the significant fire damage, which is why the declaration is left open-ended.

“We met with property owners about the clean-up, plus safety and environmental issues,” Garcia-Allen said. “There seems to be a consensus between the owners to allow the Borough to do the project, hoping it will go faster. The property owners really have the final say. They are in charge of removing the debris, not the borough. We are also working with multiple insurance companies.”

Council also expressed their concern about the area with the storms that were expected over the weekend.

“Obviously, there are safety and environmental issues. DEP also is watching this and they have their own criteria that we have to meet,” Garcia-Allen said.

In the event the borough will be doing the clean-up, they have already reached out to three companies to secure quotes. The borough would not have to put out a bid for the project because of the emergency declaration. Borough engineers will be reviewing those quotes. If the borough is enlisted for the project, the costs will be split between the property owners. Council is hopeful they will have a decision sooner rather than later.

Meadowcroft said, “It was one of the most devastating fires I’ve seen. It was made more difficult due to the age of the structure and the proximity to other buildings. We used two million gallons of water to fight the fire. After several hours of fighting the fire, we depleted the borough water and brought in several tanker trucks.”

Garcia-Allen said, “Our water system is robust, but this was beyond normal. We asked people to conserve water over the weekend until our system was back to normal.”

She added, “The fire underscores the importance of what we are trying to do in the borough. We are constantly working on updating our ordinances. This is why we have such a strong emphasis on codes. The properties that were destroyed were grandfathered in.”

“Grandfathered in” means, that existing property is not subjected to the latest ordinance or law but can instead comply with pre-existing laws.

“As the properties are rebuilt, we can bring the buildings up to existing codes,” Garcia-Allen explained. “And we will.”

Borough Council and the borough manager are extremely grateful to Union Fire Company and their volunteers who battled this fire, as well as the surrounding fire companies and the Oxford Police Department, who all assisted on the scene.

Garcia-Allen was impressed with all of the people that showed up to help.

“It was amazing to see the response of everyone in the community. They distributed water and food to everyone. They didn’t need to be asked,” she said.

Garcia-Allen thanked John Reynolds, Chester County Emergency Management Officer and the Union Fire Company for helping her navigate through the fire. 

“I’m grateful to the Public Works Department and the Water Department. Our council is also very supportive and they work so well with everyone involved. Going forward it will be one step at a time. The best thing I can do is to ensure our entire staff has the tools, resources and processes they need to do their job and to know that they are valued,” she said.

“The job continues,” she said. “Because of a crisis like this, we continue to work on securing grants to help all of us do our jobs. We have a $2.1 million grant for the theatre which is still planned. We have another $1 million Community Revitalization Program Grant for Niblock Alley.” 

The devastation from the fire was enormous, and the work to rebuild will continue for months, if not years, but Oxford, as always, remains strong, officials said.