‘15 fish may not seem like a lot, but they are ... the heart and soul of our passion’

Firefighters battle the Clark Feed & Seed fire

Firefighters battle the three-alarm Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records fire Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in downtown Bellingham, Wash.
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Firefighters battle the three-alarm Clark Feed & Seed and Avalon Records fire Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in downtown 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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Much like the Hohl Feed & Seed fire in February, one of the most difficult parts of Wednesday night’s damaging blaze at the landmark Clark Feed & Seed store is the uncertainty and mourning for the animals that were in the burned stores.

While generations of Whatcom County residents grew up watching a variety of animals at Hohl — from snakes to bunnies and other small mammals, and just about everything in between — Clark was best known for its fish. More than 13,000 gallons worth of aquariums filled with fish.

Late Thursday, July 18, Clark posted an update about the status of its famed fish collection on its Facebook page, following a three-alarm fire that burned Clark and next-door neighbor Avalon Records.

“The best news of the day: we have 15 living Bettas and two Clownfish,” the post read.

“Fifteen fish may not seem like a lot, but they are part of the heart and soul of our passion,” the post went on to say. “We are so thankful for every bit of love you have for them, too.”

The other positive to take out of the post is there is still a chance there may be others, though the aquariums have been without filters and aeration since electricity was cut to the building during the fire Wednesday evening.

The post said that the building has been deemed “far too dangerous for us to be allowed in for rescue efforts.” But two store workers, with the help of some professionals, were able to grab the fish containers that could be easily accessed, and that’s how the Bettas and Clownfish were rescued.

“We are on standby and ready to go the second they give us permission to go back in,” the post read. “Let’s keep high hopes that our swimmy friends have been able to tough it out just a little more.”

Unfortunately, it appears one of Clark’s most beloved fishes — Ms. Puff — may not be above the survivors. Clark changed its profile picture early Friday to one of Ms. Puff and in a comment spoke about her the past tense, saying, “She truly was such a bright, shining light for so many people in this town.”

Despite the likely losses, Clark was thankful for the support it received, extending gratitude to:

Customers who got clean water for the fish, monitored them after they were rescued and set up supplies.

Bellingham Pet Supply for helping with the saltwater rescue with “supplies, expertise and kindness.”

Avellino Coffeehouse for supplying clean water and coffee during the rescue efforts.

“We are so thankful for every single ounce of support and love we are receiving from you all,” the post read, before finishing with what has become its traditional post-fire sign-off “Just keep swimming.”

The Bellingham Herald has extended an invitation via email to Larry Oltmann, who has operated Clark Feed & Seed the past 44 years, to speak about Wednesday’s fire.

In 2008, Oltman told The Bellingham Herald that Clark is one of the oldest continuously operated stores in Bellingham, having been open under a few different names for more than 12 decades. He also said the store started selling tropical fish more than 60 years ago — one of the first stores in the region to do so.

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.

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.