Richmond fire crews responded to 48 fires that officials believe were related to the Black Lives Matter protests during the first 18 days of the civil unrest in the city, causing at least $3.9 million in estimated losses, primarily in the Museum District and along the West Broad Street corridor, according to an internal Richmond Fire & EMS analysis of the department’s responses during that period.
Eight buildings, six vehicles and 16 dumpsters were found on fire, in addition to 18 blazes involving trash, debris and brush between May 29, when the protests first erupted, and June 15, a fire official concluded from data compiled in a spreadsheet and made available to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“That weekend [May 29-31] for most of our members was a once-in-a-career event, and they met the moment,” Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter said. “I am proud of each and every member that participated or supported the overall response.”
Although fire crews were heavily engaged in responding to and extinguishing numerous fires, Carter said they did not divert department resources from being able to respond to other, non-protest-related emergencies during that period. “We were able to prepare and adapt to the risk,” he said.
On the evening of May 30, at the height of that weekend’s unrest, city firefighters battled a blaze at a home in the 600 block of Holly Spring Avenue in a neighborhood off Hull Street.
The nearly $4 million in estimated damages does not include all content losses inside the structures that caught fire, such as the $350,000 to $500,000 in merchandise that the DTLR apparel and shoe store at 1500 W. Broad St. lost when the building they leased was destroyed by fire on May 31, according to a company spokesman. Fire officials listed the structural damage at $200,000, with an additional $200,000 in content.
That fire also damaged two adjoining businesses, Game Stop and Starbucks Coffee, both of which have closed temporarily. The building that housed all three businesses has been stripped down to a shell and is being rebuilt.
The marble-clad headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at 328 Arthur Ashe Blvd. sustained the greatest structural damage at $1.25 million, according to fire department estimates, but the figure does not include content losses. Priceless Civil War artifacts reportedly were destroyed in the May 31 fire, including a camp flag that had been flown by Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
The fire department did not assess content damage inside the UDC building.
Workers have been on site for weeks and have restored the front exterior that was marred by smoke and flames. The interior is being restored. On Thursday, extensive scaffolding could be seen rising to the ceiling from a rear, open door used by contractors on site.
The Rite Aid store at 520 W. Broad St. also was severely damaged by fire on May 31. Fire officials estimated $1 million in structural damage with an additional $1 million loss in content. Rite Aid spokesman Chris Savarese declined to provide a dollar figure of the store’s losses; the company leases the building.
“We really haven’t been talking about damages that occurred during the protests,” he said.
The store has remained closed except for the pharmacy since late May as restoration work inside continues. “We anticipate reopening the whole store in October,” Savarese said.
Of the six vehicles that were burned, the most significant fire involved a GRTC bus that was set ablaze during the early morning hours of May 30 at West Broad and Belvidere streets, a loss placed at $250,000. About two hours earlier, protesters also set fire to a vehicle valued at $15,000 parked outside Richmond police headquarters at 200 W. Grace St.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has offered a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the person or persons responsible for setting the GRTC bus ablaze.
Another vehicle fire at 309 N. Monroe St. on May 31 that caused $6,000 in damage scorched the exterior of a commercial building there, but the blaze was contained before it could enter.
Vehicles also were set ablaze in the first block of Clay Street, 304 W. Marshall St. and in the first block of East Grace Street causing damages estimated at $5,000, $38,000 and $12,000, respectively, according to the fire department’s analysis.
Dumpster fires were set at a wide range of locations, and one of those blazes scorched an exterior wall of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandt/Rhoads Hall, a dormitory for students, a university spokesman confirmed. Fire officials placed the damage at $1,000.
Asked whether the dozens of fires significantly endangered the lives and safety of city firefighters, Carter replied, “All uncontrolled fires are inherently dangerous. However, every arson fire we encounter brings the potential dimension of intentional harm to life and health.”
The United Daughters of Confederacy has kept a low profile since the fire at their organization’s headquarters, and numerous requests to learn the extent of their loss and future plans have gone unanswered.
UDC Executive Director Mary Valentino said in an email that she forwarded the newspaper’s information request to UDC President Nelma Crutcher, who Valentino said is the “only spokesperson for the UDC.” Crutcher, who lives in Tennessee, has not responded to inquiries first made in July.
The Washington Post reported on June 3 that Civil War artifacts were destroyed in the UDC fire, including a Stonewall Jackson camp flag, but the newspaper did not attribute the source of the information.
Jeff Bowden, a national spokesman for DTLR, said the company is interested in reopening its Broad Street store once the property owner rebuilds the structure. Bowden said the company lost “upwards of $350,000 to a half-million dollars” in store fixtures, apparel and shoes at the Broad Street location.
About 45 of the company’s stores across the country “were totally looted” during the protests and riots, Bowden said, and two locations — including the Richmond store — were destroyed by fire.
“We’re finalizing everything with our insurance company and with the landlords, so that we can try and get some of them open by October, and a few more by the end of this year,” he said. “And we look forward to opening all of them by the first quarter of 2021.”
City firefighters have responded to additional protest-related fires as the demonstrations in Richmond continued. But the volume and severity of those incidents have declined. The one exception was the weekend of July 25-26, when a dump truck used to block protesters’ access to Richmond police headquarters was set on fire; numerous dumpsters were also set ablaze.
“All of the arson fires that occurred during the identified time frame are currently under investigation,” Carter said. So far, no arrests have been made.