BELLINGHAM - A large fire raced through three unoccupied buildings in Bellingham's Old Town district early Monday morning, March 1, and had reduced them to rubble by 5 a.m.
Bellingham Fire Department crews spent hours battling the blaze, which ignited in a vacant complex in the 400 block of West Holly Street. The buildings, owned by development company Trillium Corp., formerly housed antique shops and a clothing consignment store.
People passing by called 911 at 2:41 a.m. to report the fire in the Old Town section of downtown, said Andy Day, Bellingham assistant fire chief. The complex, consisting of one- and two-story wood frame buildings, was originally constructed in the early 1900s.
Thom Morey, a baker at Rocket Donuts on West Holly Street, said he first saw the glow of the fire just as fire crews were arriving.
There were sparks coming out of the front of the building. It looked like a "roman candle or sparkler bomb," Morey said. He and Gabe Tucker, the kitchen manager and head baker at Rocket Donuts, said they both saw the sparks and heard crackling and popping sounds.
"Then the whole top of the building blew up," Tucker said. "The whole top blew at once."
A combination of smoke and heat apparently caused an explosion, which shattered the buildings' windows and sent glass cascading out to the sidewalk and street.
"It looked like something out of a movie," Morey said.
Bellingham firefighters, joined by crews from South Whatcom Fire and Fire Districts 7 and 8, surrounded the complex with large hose streams to confine and extinguish the fire, Day said.
"This is going to be an all-nighter," Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd said in the predawn hours Monday as crews poured water on the buildings. "It's going to burn down slow."
Sporadic electrical outages were reported in the downtown area and traffic was interrupted on the railroad line along the waterfront. West Holly Street also was closed off because of the fire.
By mid-morning, a smoky haze had settled over downtown, with a strong smell of burning.
One building, which was one story tall, was mostly collapsed at 5 a.m.
One two-story structure collapsed at about 3:40 a.m., and the second, also two stories, fell about 10 minutes later. A one-story building had mostly collapsed by 5 a.m.
One of the buildings formerly housed the Wise Buys thrift shop, but that shop relocated to 1224 North State St. last year. Other businesses that formerly occupied the buildings included Eartha Kitty's, Pink Flamingo and Pace's New and Used.
The Old Town antiquing area had been a long established part of Bellingham's downtown. The shops, which sold everything from costume jewelry to antique baby carriages, had been a haven for treasure seekers, bargain hunters, low-income folks and curious passersby.
In March 2006, Bellingham-based Trillium Corp. bought the property for $825,000. The businesses moved out or closed down starting several months later.
Officials at Trillium, which developed projects including Bellis Fair mall and Semiahmoo Resort, did not return a call seeking comment.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.