Warehouse fire clues sought

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of a Thursday night fire on the Bellingham waterfront that destroyed a vacant warehouse in the vicinity of Cornwall Avenue and Pine Street, on the old R.G. Haley industrial property.

Bellingham Fire Marshal Donald Smith said he was checking out the possibility that a homeless person could have started the fire. Some homeless people camp in nearby woods. But there was no immediate evidence of that.

Everett Billingslea, spokesman for property owner Douglas Management Co. of Seattle, said the area was fenced and patrolled by a security company in an effort to prevent problems.

He said the building had once been used for the planing and boring of lumber for use as utility pole cross-arms, when Haley was operating at the site. He said he could not give a value for the building, which would likely have been demolished as the property is cleaned up and redeveloped. But its lumber would have been worth something as salvage.

“It was built of beautiful, big, old-growth timbers,” Billingslea said.

Douglas Management is working with the state Department of Ecology on an environmental cleanup plan for the portion of the site contaminated by wood preservative chemicals, but the fire did not occur in that area, Billingslea said.

The intense fire, first reported about 10:45 p.m. by an anonymous caller at a pay telephone, lit up Bellingham’s waterfront and threw chunks of burning material toward Bellingham Bay.

By midnight, the warehouse was little more than a skeleton frame. The structure began to collapse as beams snapped and fell. Thick smoke from the blaze could be seen from blocks away.

“It was burning like a peach basket,” said Greg Sluys, an inspector with the Bellingham Fire Department who was at the scene at daybreak. Sluys said the fire destroyed the structure’s floor and walls, making it nearly impossible to determine a cause.

Firefighters did not know whether anyone was inside the building at the time the fire started, said Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd. No one was injured.

“This is the biggest fire we’ve had in a while,” Boyd said.

The fire caused multiple power transformers to blow. Firefighters focused their efforts on saving two nearby buildings, including a three-story office building at 1000 Pine St. Fire department officials estimated the size of the warehouse at around 300 feet by 150 feet.

“The decision to place large hose streams immediately on the exposed office building made all the difference in the world,” Boyd said in an e-mail. “Our firefighters did a great job in keeping the fire in check until it could burn itself out.”

Firefighters stayed on scene throughout the night to monitor the fire and let it burn out safely.