The Georgia state fire marshal’s office confirmed Tuesday that the Monday night fire at Dahlonega’s Rite Aid pharmacy was deliberately set.
"It was definitely an arson," said Glenn Allen, spokesman for Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. "There is a person of interest we are looking for."
The fire started at about 6 p.m. Monday, causing heavy smoke and water damage to the building. Fire departments from Lumpkin, White, Hall and Forsyth counties responded to the blaze.
No monetary estimate on the damage had been released as of late Tuesday afternoon. Officials said they still were interviewing people who were in the store at the time the fire started.
Allen said the fire appears to have been set by a disgruntled customer.
"An individual came into the store and attempted to purchase an item that the store did not carry," Allen said. "He left in frustration, then came back, took some chemical products off the shelf and ignited them, then fled the store."
The fire spread quickly, but employees and customers were able to evacuate safely and no one was injured.
Allen said investigators captured an image of the suspect on surveillance video, but authorities have not yet released a description of the person.
Allen said anyone with information about the fire should call the state arson hot line at 800-282-5804.
In the 18-degree chill Tuesday morning, Rite Aid personnel worked to set up a heated tent at the site so pharmacists could accept customers’ prescriptions. But Rite Aid spokeswoman Cheryl Slavinsky said they would not be able to fill the prescriptions in Dahlonega.
"Employees will fill them at the Rite Aid in Dawsonville, which is about 20 minutes away," she said. "They’ll bring (the medications) back to the tent or even deliver them to customers’ homes if necessary, so people won’t have to drive to Dawsonville."
Prescription orders can be dropped off and paid for at the tent between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Slavinsky said a pharmacy cannot legally dispense drugs from a tent. By the end of the week, the company hopes to have a trailer on the site, supplied with electricity and phone service.
"Once we have the trailer, our pharmacy license will be transferred there," she said.
The trailer will have to be restocked with new batches of medications, Slavinsky said, because the drugs that were exposed to the fire cannot be sold.
For now, anyone who calls the Dahlonega store will automatically have their call rolled over to the Dawsonville Rite Aid.
There are also Rite Aid stores in Cleveland and Gainesville, and patients may choose to have their doctors call in prescriptions at one of those locations.
"Because of our satellite data system (which stores patient information), Rite Aid prescriptions can be filled anywhere," Slavinsky said.
Shirley Shelnut, office manager of Northeast Georgia Physicians Group Dahlonega, said some patients were shocked when they went to fill their prescriptions Monday evening and saw that the store was on fire.
"We had some people call us back and ask us to transfer their prescriptions to Wal-Mart," she said. "Other patients decided to drive to Cleveland or Dawsonville (Rite Aid stores) to fill theirs. So there was a little inconvenience, but nobody is complaining."
Pennsylvania-based Rite Aid has about 4,900 stores nationwide. The Dahlonega store, which was formerly an Eckerd Drug, has 16 employees and about 10,900 square feet of floor space.
Slavinsky said because they don’t yet know the extent of the damage at the Dahlonega store, it’s impossible to predict when the pharmacy will be able to reopen at its permanent location.