Transient man suspected of starting fire to stay warm that spread to Hohl building

Security camera videos capture ‘person of interest’ in Bellingham fire

Bellingham Police are trying to identify a "person of interest" seen in this security camera footage before a fire destroyed the historic Hohl Feed & Seed store early Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.
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Bellingham Police are trying to identify a "person of interest" seen in this security camera footage before a fire destroyed the historic Hohl Feed & Seed store early Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

Bellingham Police have arrested a 57-year-old transient man suspected of starting a Feb. 18 two-alarm fire that destroyed the historic Hohl Feed & Seed store in downtown Bellingham.

Paul Jonathon Wolfe was booked into Whatcom County Jail Wednesday afternoon on suspicion of first-degree felony reckless burning.

According to a city of Bellingham press release on the arrest, Wolfe has denied setting the fire and said he didn’t remember the morning of the incident.

Police believe Wolfe started the fire in a brick chimney in the back alley between two buildings that made up the feed and seed store to get warm, the release said.

According to National Weather Service records, the temperature at Bellingham International Airport at 4 a.m. on Feb. 18 was 28 degrees.

“I’m glad they found who was responsible for (the fire),” Hohl Feed & Seed manager Kelcie Faber told The Bellingham Herald Thursday. “I thought it would bring some sort of closure, but all around, it’s really frustrating. I want to feel sympathetic to somebody trying to get warm, but at the same time, this reckless act destroyed something that was really important to us and the community.”

According to the release, video surveillance in the area showed:

At approximately 3:35 a.m. Feb. 18, two people entered the small alcove between two buildings that were part of Hohl Feed & Seed and remained there for about 30 minutes.

At approximately 4 a.m., two people left the alcove.

At approximately 4:05 a.m., what appears to be a third person, ran into the alcove and appears to remove items from the alcove, including what appeared to be a backpack, before running away from the area.

Wolfe was identified by a witness after police released a portion video, the release said. The witness said that minutes after the fire was started in the chimney, he saw sparks and flames coming out of the top. He and Wolfe then reportedly panicked and left the area.

According to court records, Wolfe was previously sentenced in Whatcom County to 364 days in jail, with 344 days suspended, after he pleaded guilty in July to third-degree theft for taking a woman’s purse in June at the Silver Reef Casino.

Hohl Feed & Seed on the 1300 block of Railroad Avenue in Bellingham was destroyed by a two-alarm fire. According to Bellingham Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Hewett, crews responded to the blaze at 4:20 a.m.

A Bellingham landmark burns

As previously reported in The Herald, fire crews arrived shortly after 4:20 a.m. Monday to find the alley-side of the building that was built in 1902 in flames. Crews had difficulty accessing the second story from inside and were forced to pull back and fight the blaze defensively and issued a second alarm. The fire also spread to a second, newer building and an old granary behind the building that were both part of Hohl Feed & Seed.

Firefighters were able to rescue 78 animals from the fire, though crews were not able to get to approximately 10 birds and a snake.

In a joint press release Feb. 20, the Bellingham Fire and Police Departments said the fire appeared to start under suspicious circumstances in the ally behind the building.

A day later, police released surveillance video that appeared to show one person wearing dark clothing enter along the alley and stop near the back of the Hohl building. A short time later a white glow is seen next to the building before the person walks away toward East Magnolia Street.A second camera along East Magnolia shows the person cross the street, walking within sight of a second person, who appeared to be wearing a red hat.

Hohl Feed & Seed has anchored Railroad Avenue since it was founded in 1901, providing Whatcom County a variety of pet and animal products.

Fire officials said the fire that destroyed Hohl Feed & Seed in Bellingham, Wash., on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, was not accidental and likely was caused by a person.

Community outreach

Faber said owners of the store are still determining what is next after the fire.

“Most of the employees have found jobs or at least interviewed,” she told The Herald. “That just shows how the community has been great about reaching out to us.”

Faber said she and others at the store have been overwhelmed by how the community has responded in the aftermath of the fire.

“It’s really kind of been a savior to the whole thing seeing people who care about us and love us,” she said. “It also makes you sad, because they really loved us and our store. I’ve had so many people reach out about where they can find specific products that we carried.”

Among those who reached out after the fire was the Whatcom Humane Society, which stepped in to care for the animals that fire fighters were able to rescue from the fire. Rabbits, domestic rats, gerbils, mice and hamsters who were rescued are among the animals that can be adopted Saturday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Whatcom Humane Society, 2172 Division St.

Due to safety and stability concerns in what’s left of the building, Faber said Hohl employees still have not been allowed into areas where a 3- to 4-foot albino ball python and approximately 10 birds were kept at the time of the fire.

“There has been a lot of misinformation on that,” Faber said, admitting she can’t admit how social media has latched onto the missing animals and lifted them to a sort of folk status. “The snake was kept in an enclosure in the office. It’s highly unlikely it’s out on the loose. Same with the birds, they were all in locked enclosures.”

The Whatcom Humane Society is sheltering 78 animals, ranging from gerbils to a tarantula, that were rescued from the Hohl Seed & Feed fire Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. The animals are available for adoption from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, 2019.

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.