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In wake of losing house to fire, Wilheit urges others to donate to less fortunate
Family plans to rebuild
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Philip Wilheit unlocks the fence that surrounds his fire ravaged home Friday afternoon. Fire officials reported the blaze started in the fireplace, but they don’t yet know why.

In times of crisis, the mind has a way of slowing things down, part of the fight-or-flight instinct evolution has bred.

For Philip Wilheit, a prominent local businessman, the night a fire engulfed and destroyed his family home in North Hall late last month seemed to last an eternity.

Though the blaze spread quickly, it seemed like forever before firefighters arrived on the scene.

“Timeframes at this point are kind of difficult,” Wilheit said.

Though it only took a few minutes for the first fire engine to show, fighting the blaze seemed to go on and on as his hopes for saving part of the home diminished with each passing minute and hour.

The roughly 10,000-square-foot lakefront home in the 4600 block of Shoreline Drive off Harold Whelchel Road, valued at about $2 million, is a total loss.

Wilheit said he first noticed smoke billowing from the fireplace and chimney above the mantle just a few minutes after he lit kindling to ignite it following a quiet evening and dinner with his wife, Mary Hart Wilheit.

“I looked up and knew immediately” that something was wrong, he said.

It wasn’t the first time he had used the fireplace this season, and perhaps the 30th time since moving in about a year-and-a-half ago, Wilheit said.

He remains “dumbfounded” about the exact nature of the cause, and Hall County Fire Services is still investigating.

Wilheit said he told his wife to call 911 and get the family pets, two dogs and a cat out of the home while he retrieved a garden hose from the front of the home and ran back inside to douse the fire himself.

Eventually, Wilheit said he was forced outside for a breath of fresh air as black smoke consumed the home, and by the time the first firefighters were on scene the blaze “had the family room going pretty well.”

Efforts to battle the fire were hampered by the fact that tanker trucks had to shuttle water to the site from a fire hydrant more than half a mile away.

“If they had had water … this could have maybe been a $200,000 catastrophe,” Wilheit said. “But they did the best they could.”

The loss of his home has left Wilheit both stunned and grateful.

Fifty years of memories and keepsakes were lost as wedding albums, his father’s handcrafted furniture and other family heirlooms were destroyed.

“Everyday three or four things pop into my mind,” he said about what is now gone.

But a few precious items, such as a fourth-generation christening gown, were saved.

“Those are special things,” Wilheit said. “And we’re really blessed in a lot of areas.”

Wilheit and his wife have moved into the in-law suite on the adjacent property owned by his adult children, and the outpouring of support from friends and the community has been overwhelming — so much so, in fact, that he is requesting any donations be made in the family’s name to Habitat for Humanity of Hall County to support the homeownership dreams of those less fortunate.

“We don’t really have a money problem,” he said. “We have a stuff problem.”

Wilheit is the president and CEO of Wilheit Packaging. His business’s warehouse burned in 1991, but this latest fire is much more difficult to deal with.

He is also a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, chairman of the Gainesville-Hall County Development Authority and previously served as statewide campaign chairman for Gov. Nathan Deal’s first gubernatorial race in 2010.

Wilheit’s wife served as executive director of Gainesville/Hall ’96 leading up to the 1996 Olympics.

“She’s been great through the whole thing,” Wilheit said.

He plans to rebuild at the lakefront site and hopes it will only take about a year as the septic, retaining walls and other foundational elements remain in place.

Of course, he is concerned about the prospect of another fire.

The fire generated a dispute between some Hall County and Gainesville officials over access to water and how to provide it for a growing populace in rural areas of the county.

Gainesville officials said the city’s water system does not currently extend to Wilheit’s property based on need, which is determined by whether a large number of property owners petition the city to extend the line and agree to become customers, or a developer extends water to a new subdivision.

Wilheit said he is working with county and city officials to run water lines to the home in the future and he plans to run an additional line into the property, which is set back 500 yards from the road, at his own expense.

“If it happens again, we’ll have that security,” Wilheit said. “Life deals you different cards, but you just play them.”

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