Investigation begins into fire that damaged landmark Clark Feed & Seed, Avalon Records

Drone footage shows devastation at Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records

Drone footage over Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records shows the devastation of both buildings the day after crews responded to a three-alarm fire Wednesday night, July 18, 2019, in Bellingham, Wash.
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Drone footage over Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records shows the devastation of both buildings the day after crews responded to a three-alarm fire Wednesday night, July 18, 2019, in Bellingham, Wash.

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Clark Feed & Seed, Avalon Records fire

A fire the evening of July 17, 2019, significantly damaged landmark downtown business Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records.

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Fire investigators are beginning the process of determining what caused Wednesday evening’s three-alarm fire that significantly damaged landmark downtown business Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records.

The final firefighters left the scene along Railroad Avenue at approximately 8 a.m. Thursday, July 18, almost 13 hours after the first crews arrived to battle the blaze that filled downtown Bellingham with heavy smoke and brought the response of 20 units from the Bellingham Fire Department, South Whatcom Fire Authority, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue and Whatcom County District 7.

“They (fire investigators) have been inside both structures, and they’re early on in their investigation,” Bellingham Fire captain Dave Pethick told The Bellingham Herald Thursday morning. “They’re looking at the fire scene and have found what they believe is an area of origin.”

Pethick said investigators usually work to find an area where the fire started and then intensify their efforts in that area to find more details to narrow the area down and give them clues as to what started the fire.

Pethick said only portions of the Clark Feed & Seed roof had collapsed from the fire, and that made crews cautious about the stability of the structure.

Pethick called the smoke and water damage to both historic businesses “significant,” but said there were different pockets inside the businesses that were affected less and that some inventory even might be able to be uncovered and saved.

At Clark Feed & Seed, the inventory most of social media is talking about are the more than 13,000 gallons of tropical freshwater and saltwater aquariums filled with many varieties of fish and plans.

Firefighters battle the three-alarm Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records fire Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in downtown Bellingham, Wash.

Shortly before they left the scene Thursday, Pethick said firefighters were able to carry a few Beta fish that were in little jars from the fire scene and that they were still alive. But the fate of rest of the fish, who had been without power to run filter and aeration for more than 13 hours, wasn’t known.

“Once we get in there, we’ll know a little more,” Pethick said.

The firefighter who was taken to St. Joseph hospital for exhaustion and observation was “healthy and doing fine,” Pethick told The Herald Thursday.

No other people were reported injured from the fire, Pethick said Wednesday, though firefighters cautioned a group of more than 200 onlookers Wednesday night about the dangers of breathing the heavy smoke.

Railroad Avenue and East Magnolia Street had reopened to vehicle traffic Thursday, but sidewalks near the building were still blocked off.

‘They got here quick’

According to the initial report on the PulsePoint app, crews responded to a commercial fire at Clark Feed & Seed at 7:16 p.m. Wednesday.

“They got here quick, and they’re working hard,” assistant chief Jay Comfort told The Bellingham Herald Wednesday.

Comfort said crews were originally called for a smoke investigation at Clark, but quickly upgraded the incident to fire suppression.

Pethick said the first fire crews arrived and entered Clark Feed & Seed to fight the fire offensively. But by 7:50 p.m., it was determined to pull fire crews out of the building and fight the fire defensively in the interest of firefighter safety. Crews attempted to keep flames from spreading to Avalon Records, Pethick said.

Bellingham Fire Captain Dave Pethick updates media on the Clark Feed & Seed fire at 10 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in downtown Bellingham, Wash.

“Whenever we go defensive, I expect there to be extensive damage,” Pethick said.

At 8:03 p.m., Bellingham Fire tweeted that it had sounded a third alarm for the fire, as crews battled from two sides.

Efforts to save Avalon were unsuccessful, as Pethick said fire in both stores was being fought defensively by 8:44 p.m.

Pethick said he believes Vienna Cleaners also had been impacted by the fire and smoke.

Social media posts on The Herald Facebook page showed an outpouring of sadness for the landmark business in downtown and concern for the fish at Clark that many Bellingham residents grew up watching.

Not the first fire

Wednesday’s fire comes nearly five months to the day after Hohl Feed & Seed, a store that shared a wall with Clark, was destroyed by fire on Feb. 18. Two alarms were called on that fire.

Comfort told The Herald that Wednesday’s third alarm was called at Clark in part because of the Hohl fire and the remaining parts of that building that are still standing.

The Hohl fire was determined to have been started by a transient who was attempting to get warm. On Feb. 28, Bellingham Police booked Paul Jonathon Wolfe into Whatcom County Jail on suspicion of first-degree felony reckless burning.

Wolfe, 56, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, according to court records. Wolfe got credit for time served and was released from jail in March, according to Whatcom County Jail records.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.