Torched again: Fire on Afton mountain

An early morning blaze burned up the gable and charred much of the interior of the Skyline Parkway Motel, a moribund hotel at the crest of the Blue Ridge.

"We basically went to a defensive mode with Augusta County's aerial operations," says Mike Fisher, the chief of the Dooms Volunteer Fire Company, who says he was first on the scene.

After taking the call at 3:46am on July 9, Fisher arrived to find that flames had broken through the roof, so he directed a "master stream" instead of sending firefighters into the burning building.

Special Agent Garland Snead with the State Police arson unit in Appomattox says the fire in the locked building was arson. "It was broken into," says Snead. "Paint was used as an accelerant as well as bath towels that were hanging around– along with possible other substances."

Snead says the police have already developed "substantial" leads and suspects– and expect to announce arrests within two weeks.

The mountaintop complex has seen several fires in recent years. In November 2002, a reproduction log cabin that once served as a ski resort office went up in flames. About six weeks later, one of motel's former guest cabins suffered a similar fate.

Ironically, it was two firefighters with the Dooms Company who pleaded guilty to setting those earlier blazes as well as several others, according to the Augusta County Commonwealth's Attorney, A. Lee Ervin.

"They would go out and set the fires so their company could respond," says Ervin.

Michael Tong and Joey Lambert Jr. pleaded guilty last year to seven and nine arson charges, respectively, and were sentenced in April. With most of their 30-plus-year sentences suspended, Ervin says, each will serve approximately about 18 months behind bars. Together they also face restitution claims of $194,372, says Ervin.

Since the two were incarcerated at the time of the recent blaze, they are not under suspicion at this time, says Ervin.

"This is a completely different department now," says Dooms Chief Fisher. "We have 34 new members; these boys are really trying." Fisher, who had previously served as chief from 1978 to 1989, recently came out of retirement to clean up the department.

The upper peak of the mountain might benefit from some cleaning.

Although it includes the very-much-alive Inn at Afton (a former Holiday Inn whose $50-70 rooms overlooking the lush landscapes of Albemarle and Nelson Counties recently earned the attention of the Washington Post), much of this commercial complex has closed in recent years.

Besides the fire-plagued Skyline Parkway Motor Court, composed of the motel and the guest cabins, the orange-roofed Howard Johnson's restaurant has been closed since December 1998. And a gift shop that once served as the motel office now joins HoJo's in slumbering repose.

Presiding over this veritable museum of mid-century motoring is Phil Dulaney of Skyline Swannanoa Inc., a business named for the opulent marble mansion further up the mountain that his father and other Charlottesville businessmen acquired about 60 years ago.

Dulaney, who wants to raze the Motor Court, says the lodging complex opened in 1949 and that the building that burned last week was built in 1962.

In 1997, Dulaney parted ways with the new-age group operating a mail-order school at the mansion and soon after announced plans to restore it as a bed and breakfast inn. That effort stalled due to health and financial concerns.

Although Swannanoa recently played host to three June weddings and a three-day photo shoot (complete with ersatz snowflakes) for the upscale Dallas-based clothing chain called Harold's, Dulaney says he's unsure when he'll have a timetable for the overhaul of this moldering mountain top.

"Not right now," he says. "Literally, I've been putting out fires."

The Skyline Parkway Motel two months ago and 12 hours after the fire.