‘This is a tragedy in many ways,’ court commissioner says of Hohl Feed & Seed fire

Hohl fire suspect makes first appearance in court

Paul Wolfe, accused of starting the Hohl building fire on Feb. 18, makes his first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Feb. 28, 2019. (Edited March 14, 2019, to omit witness names.)
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Paul Wolfe, accused of starting the Hohl building fire on Feb. 18, makes his first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Feb. 28, 2019. (Edited March 14, 2019, to omit witness names.)

The transient man suspected of starting a fire to keep warm early Feb. 18 that ultimately ignited a two-alarm blaze that destroyed the historic Hohl Feed & Seed building in downtown Bellingham had his bail amount set at $50,000 in Whatcom County Superior Court Thursday afternoon.

Paul Jonathon Wolfe, 57, made his first appearance before court commissioner Angela Cuevas a day after Bellingham Police arrested him on suspicion of first-degree felony reckless burning. If convicted, Wolfe could face a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“All the way around, every way you look at it, this is a tragedy in many ways,” Cuevas said in setting bail. “You have the loss of a historic building, a longstanding business, the small animals that perished, but also the tragedy of an unsheltered person who is just trying to keep warm allegedly on that night. Nevertheless, this alleged reckless act puts at risk human life — first responders could have been injured — and adjacent buildings and business. Thankfully, no human life lost. So I do believe this reckless act is a community risk.”

Prosecuting attorney Kellen Kooistra asked bail be set at $50,000 after he spoke to the Hohl Feed & Seed owners who he said worried that something similar might happen again if Wolfe was released.

“This was an act that caused a considerable amount of damage, destroying this building, also destroying the pets who were in the building,” Kooistra said. “Thankfully no people were hurt, but it certainly raises significant danger.”

In requesting bail be set “reasonably high,” Kooistra said Wolfe failed to appear in court 12 times for court cases in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Public defender Darrin Hall said the state has the burden to show that Wolfe was likely to fail to reappear or that he’s a danger to the community, and argued that Wolfe was neither and should be released on his own recognizance.

Public defender Darrin Hall, left, stands alongside Paul Wolfe, who is suspected of starting the Feb. 18 fire that destroyed Hohl Feed & Seed, during his first appearance at Whatcom County Superior Court Thursday. Lacey Young

“By the very definition of what reckless burning is is that it’s not intentional,” Hall said. “It’s not charged as intentional. The state itself doesn’t believe it’s intentional, and given that lack of intent, I think there does not show to be a danger to the community either. Obviously, the significant damage done is important, but it’s not a measure of whether or not someone should be held.”

Wolfe’s arraignment was scheduled for 9 a.m. March 8.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bellingham Police booked Wolfe into Whatcom County Jail after a weeklong investigation into the Hohl fire. According to a city of Bellingham press release on the arrest Thursday, 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. Temperatures dipped to 28 degrees at 4 p.m. Feb. 18 at Bellingham International Airport, according to National Weather Service records.

“I’m glad they found who was responsible for (the fire),” Hohl Feed & Seed manager Kelcie Faber told The Bellingham Herald on 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.”

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.

Video surveillance before the fire

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 15 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 reaches out to Hohl

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 firefighters 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.

Because of 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.
Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.