Burned: Veterinary practices up in flames


National Report - Three veterinary practitioners are still coming to terms with loss from fires in February-one who lost a family business and nine animals, another who lost her home, and a third who lost his business and many personal possessions in a suspected arson.

NATIONAL REPORT — Three veterinary practitioners are still coming to terms with loss from fires in February—one who lost a family business and nine animals, another who lost her home, and a third who lost his business and many personal possessions in a suspected arson.

Read their stories and see their advice for minimizing the loss from the devastating impact of a fire.

Practice and lives lost

As the newest veterinarian at Rowan Animal Clinic in Salisbury, N.C., Greg Lowe, DVM, was used to getting the late-night phone calls when the motion detector went off at the clinic. The alarm company would call Lowe's father, R.B. Lowe, DVM, who in turn called Lowe.

Usually, he would drive out to the clinic to find that a Houdini-like dog had escaped its kennel.

Right away, the call on Feb. 19 was different.

Instead of just the motion sensor going off, the fire alarm had gone off as well. Lowe was still seven miles away on the highway when his fears were confirmed.

"The closer I got, the more I realized what it was," Lowe, 28, recalls. "The closer I got, the faster I drove."

Lowe jumped out of his car and ran to the back of the building. He wanted desperately to get in.

There were a couple of police officers standing at the back door.

"I told them to break it, run a car into it," Lowe remembers.

Officers eventually were able to get in using a crow bar, but the smoke was overwhelming. No one could make it two feet inside the door.

Nine dogs were in the clinic, and all nine perished.

Officials speculate the fire began in the attic, but the cause of the fire remained under investigation as of press time.

"It's a life experience," Lowe says. "It's not one I would wish on anyone else."

The building, at which the senior Lowe has practiced for 35 years, is a total loss. About 20 employees are out of a job, at least for now.

Rowan Animal Clinic will re-open at the same location. For now, a temporary clinic is being set up at a local strip mall. Thanks to payroll insurance, employees still are able to be paid during this transition period.

"My dad practiced at that building site for 35 years," Lowe says. "He was devastated. Thirty-five years of his life were gone in one evening. But he did a large-animal call the Monday after the fire. He picked up and did the one thing he could do."

The outpouring from the community has made all the difference. Clients helped demolish the building. The Lowe family was placed on a food list. Donations began pouring in, and the clinic will use the money to build a park for the nine dogs that died. A local funeral home also donated services for the owners of the dogs that died.

Industry has stepped up to help get the clinic up and running again as well.

"All of the veterinary clinics in the area were very supportive, too, offering everything from facilities to sending teams of technicians the night of the fire to triage patients," Lowe says. "They definitely made some big offers to help."

Fast and furious

Kitty Barnett, DVM, had just gotten out of a bath at her Fulton, Mo., home on Feb. 19 and was getting ready for bed when she noticed her dogs staring at her like something was going on.

Then, she and her son, Travis, both heard a loud pop. When they ran out to the living room, it was already on fire.

"I grabbed a fire extinguisher and my son grabbed a 5-gallon container of water," she recalls. "But we had to get the heck out of there. We called 911."

Barnett believes the fire was electrical because of the popping sound and because of how quickly it spread. Fire officials will not be able to determine a cause due to the extensive damage, she says. The fire department had to return to the home the next day because it was still burning.

Barnett and her son broke a window and rescued one cat, but two others died in the fire.

"I didn't even have socks and shoes," Barnett says of how quickly everything happened.

After the fire she was able to recover her fireproof safe, which had negatives of her children when they were little, as well as a couple of boxes that also contained photos, but everything else was destroyed.

For now, she's staying in a hotel down the road from the Callaway Veterinary Clinic, where she works with her ex-husband. She just found a duplex where she plans to move temporarily and she may build a log cabin later on.

"It's kind of odd going to (the store) and realizing, I don't have this, and I don't have that," she says. "Oh well. It's just stuff."

Barnett is just glad she and her son escaped unharmed.

"I never thought I would have a fire," she says. "If I did I certainly would have thought I had more time to get out."

Arsonist attack

Charles Knowles, DVM, was hundreds of miles away completing continuing education when he learned that fire was destroying the Knowles Animal Hospital in Logan, W.V., where he has been the sole practitioner since 1990.

Fire was shooting out of the top of the building, and there was nothing Knowles could do.

What was possibly even more disturbing was that fire officials believe the Feb. 5 blaze was intentionally set. Local authorities reported one home and two other commercial buildings were burned within 30 days of the fire at Knowles, and law enforcement agencies were teaming up to identify a suspect as of press time.

"The top floor was very much destroyed," Knowles says. Luckily, the first floor, where five rescue animals were housed, was not. The animals have since been adopted.

While it initially seemed possible to re-open right away because the bottom floor was largely untouched by the fire, water damage from efforts to extinguish the blaze made that impossible.

"Everything needs to come out," he says.

Knowles is in the process of setting up a temporary hospital at another location, but it will depend on cost. He is still working on rebuilding the animal hospital.

"With three kids in college, I wasn't really ready to quit," he says. "And I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to build it as nice as it was. But I will probably build a garage in the back with an apartment on top and use the garage as storage and to work on old cars."

The upstairs of the destroyed building was used as storage for extra medical equipment not in use, lawn equipment, personal possessions, and old medical records.

Knowles lost five bicycles, two motorcycles, a brand new mountain bike, a parachute, camping gear, and an extensive collection of books on aviation.

"I was always prepared to be robbed," Knowles says. "I wasn't prepared for this. It takes a special type of person that would try to kill animals. It's hard to believe."

Lessons learned

Although the fires were devastating, everyone involved in these February blazes came away with newfound knowledge.

After going through the experience of trying to rebuild Rowan Animal Clinic, Lowe offers this advice to colleagues: "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

"Whenever you're looking for places to cut back, I recommend insurance not be one of those place," he suggests.

When Lowe started looking to make cuts at the clinic two years ago, he examined the clinic's insurance policy, but luckily decided not to make any cuts. His forethought paid off.

Thanks to the clinic's payroll insurance, all of the employees will continue to be paid for up to a year, which will allow the clinic time to rebuild.

Building insurance and expense insurance also proved to be worth the cost. But Lowe couldn't foresee all of the potential problems as the result of a fire.

All of the clinic's electronic records were recovered, but there were paper records that were destroyed. Surprisingly, one of the more experienced veterinarians on staff was the first to suggest typing more and writing less.

"All of our contact information, all of our inventory information were damaged," he says. "I recommend keeping that information in a fireproof safe at another location. There is something to be said for backing up off-sight and fireproof safes."

There is also something to be said for not procrastinating, says Barnett.

"I was planning on having a big benefit garage sale in the spring," she says. "I had a lot of things I thought I would like to give people, too. I should have went ahead and done it."

Barnett is grateful she had a fireproof safe and that she had a video in that safe of her China cabinets.

But everything else is gone.

"I didn't even have time to grab my purse," she says.

And personal items are important; just ask Knowles.

In the future, Knowles plans on having additional insurance that covers belongings away from home. He lost a number of his "toys," including bicycles, motorcycles and a large book collection.

While his homeowner's insurance will cover a percentage of his loss, it is nowhere close to the true value of the items—some never used.

It's a lesson learned.

Knowles also plans to install security cameras in the future. Although another arson isn't likely, the cameras would capture any break-ins.

"I always expected to be robbed," he says, "Not burned."

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