North Coast Journal Weekly link to homepageIn the News

Feb. 13, 2003

The ashes of St. Mary's

Musician dies in crash

Trial by fire - A spate of furnace fires

Peace button business booming

Water board staff seeks meeting

Cougar sighted

Target store delayed

Nay and maybe

Cell towers blocked

Look out in SoHum

The ashes of St. Mary's

story & photo by ANDREW EDWARDS

The burned wreckage of St. Mary's after fireDOUG BOILEAU OF ARCATA HAD BEEN running a one-man committee, under the auspices of the parish council, to restore the Old St. Mary's Catholic church on 16th Street, when early Saturday morning everything changed.

Flames -- perhaps from a fire set by transients to keep warm -- began moving through the redwood structure. In less than two hours, a building that had stood for 119 years was incinerated.

The result could be seen on Monday afternoon, as the church's high, scorched walls glistened black against a robin's egg blue sky.

Stretched around the hulk was a silver hurricane fence girded with a yellow banner: "fire line do not cross fire line do not cross fire line do not cross." A sprig of small, white flowers fluttered on the fence out front.

Inside, the building was gutted. Charred beams and boards lay willy-nilly on mounds of ash. Under the desiccated walls the fiberglass that had protected the old, stained-glass windows lay melted and bubbled next to melted lumps of what was presumably the lead that had held them together.

"We were really hoping to restore it to its former glory," Boileau said, speaking by phone Monday afternoon. "There are a lot of people whose parents were married there, grandparents married there, first communions, baptisms."

He had first been inspired to work on the restoration driving his daughter to the nearby high school, seeing the church there boarded up every day. He had planned to have the work -- relatively minor repairs he estimated at costing $250,000 -- completed by the time she graduated. An engineer had just been contracted to study the structure and plan how to repair it in compliance with building codes for historical structures. The church was listed on the federal historical buildings register.

But the transients were a constant problem.

"It was just a matter of time before this happened. We were running people out of here every day," said Bill Stonebarger, who stood in the fresh-cut grass behind the church, arms folded across his chest. Stonebarger works in the Greenwood Cemetery, which spreads out in back of the church.

He said that homeless people had taken over the abandoned church, sleeping in the 4-foot crawl space underneath and going up under the stairs to enter the church itself.

Boileau said that at one point he had discovered a whole camp under there, with cardboard-separated sleeping areas and gear. They had put up a sign saying they were going to seal it off, so that the transients could get their stuff and then, a few days later, nailed 2x4s over the entrance. But people had just broken in in other ways.

The Arcata Fire Department speculated in a news release that the fire was probably started by candles or a warming fire lit by transients under the building. The building had no electricity or gas so a utility fire wasn't a possibility.

The fire that raged there Saturday morning sent flames roaring up through the steeple. It was so hot that at one point neighbor Dick Sorenson, a former fire-fighter himself, couldn't stand on his back porch to spray down his house. The firefighters, who had a plan set up in case this structure burned -- like they have for several other local buildings -- sprayed a continuous shower of mist between the blaze and the row of houses next door to absorb the heat, but the paint still blistered on a nearby house (not Sorenson's). The Arcata Community Pool, which borders the church on the other side, was unscathed, protected as it is by a firewall built for just this eventuality.

The building now is unrecoverable, leaving a saddened community. One woman looking at the ruins remarked that every time she came back to town one of her favorite old buildings had burned down. The last time she had visited Arcata was right after the Marino's fire.

It also leaves an approximately $93,000 legacy donated by a local woman who had loved the old church and wanted the money used for the restoration.

"This almost never happens," said Peter Pennekamp, head of the Humboldt Area Foundation, which managed the fund. He said that since the woman, who donated anonymously, has been dead for two years, her advisor would be contacted to find out what should now be done with the money.

"It's really a shame to see it sort of lapse all these years, and then finally have the thing burn down," Pennekamp said.

So what's next? Speculation has been going around about tearing down everything on the property, which includes a school house and shed that survived relatively intact, and expanding the Catholic cemetery beyond it, or building a small memorial to the church.

Boileau said that the first thing they were going to do was to contact the Santa Rosa diocese, to find out how extensively insurance covered the building, but that it was unlikely that Arcatans will ever see a similar structure there again.

Musician dies in crash

Luis Cepeda playing congasPuerto Rican bomba master Luis "Chichito" Cepeda was killed Feb. 5 when his car ran off the road near the Redwood Monastery outside Whitethorn. He was 45.

Cepeda was driving to his Whale Gulch home after an evening at the Redwood Pub in Redway, where he was featured in a performance by a jazz congregation known as Humboldt Time.

Born March 3, 1957, Cepeda was the second-youngest of 12 children born to Rafael Cepeda Atiles and Caridad Brenes Cepeda. His father, and the Cepeda family as a whole, were known in Puerto Rico and around the world as patriarchs of the Afro-Puerto Rican music traditions known as bomba and plena.

Cepeda's drumming expertise paved the way for him to play with a wide variety of groups in Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised, and in Humboldt County, his home since 1999.

In addition to his work with Kachimbo and Humboldt Time, Cepeda was featured in Ruben Diaz' Tunesmiths, a Latin jazz band that has been playing regularly at the Blue Lake Casino.

Two years ago he formed a bomba and plena group called Cepeda with family members and friends; he was musical director and lead percussionist.

Last year, while Cepeda was on tour in Puerto Rico, he and his wife, Estrella Quiroga, produced the group's first CD, Bailando el Tambor/ Dancing the Drum. Earlier this year he toured Australia with a New York-based bomba group.

"Music was Luis' life, his heart and soul," said Jimmy Durchslag, who played with Cepeda his last night. Durchslag also worked with Cepeda in the band Kachimbo and recorded sessions with him on Bembé Records, a record label he runs with David Peñalosa.

Michael Curran, a drummer who leads the Humboldt Time session, said he was shocked when he heard the news. "He was the sweetest guy ever," said Curran. "We had just had an incredible night of music."

Durchslag agreed. "The place was packed and Chichito had the space to stretch out. He played three congas, taking lengthy solos that built to incredible peaks, bringing everyone along for the ride. The crowd erupted in waves of applause after each solo. Magic took place there that night, as it so often did when he performed."

Durchslag called Cepeda "a role model."

"He had boundless energy and a positive approach to life and music. He pushed dancers to stretch beyond their limitations and reach into the depths of their soul to attain that spiritual connection between dancer and primo [the lead drum] that is the lifeblood of bomba."

Friends gathered Sunday at the Redwood Monastery to celebrate Cepeda's life. A memorial concert was held last week in Berkeley. His body was flown to Puerto Rico this week for burial.

Cepeda is survived by his wife and a 22-year-old son, Luis Daniel "Hadji" Cepeda Rosa, a resident of Puerto Rico.

-- reported by Bob Doran

Trial by fire



It was this thought that suddenly jarred me as I lay in bed at 11 o'clock last Wednesday night. The memory of how my toes had felt earlier that day as I stood in the hallway of the house we recently bought in Eureka.

I was painting the linen closet, one of the few remaining things that had to get finished before we moved in on Saturday. Our painter, Patrick, was there, too, as were our contractors, Mark and Rex. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we were joking, feeling a sense of lightness that this two-month renovation project was practically finished. The house -- with its new cream-colored paint, partially rehabbed bathroom and kitchen, and polished wood floors -- was looking great.

We all took our shoes off that day; the hard wood floors had just gotten refinished the day before and we didn't want to mark them up if the final coating was still soft.

But it was cold inside the house; the gas had been shut off so that we could hook up a line to the garage for our dryer. Being constantly cold myself, I asked Rex to turn the gas back on and light the pilot on the original 1940s floor heater, an old monstrosity that sat under a grate in the middle of the hallway.

By the time I started on the linen closet, the heater had been pumping away for a couple of hours. "I'm turning this thing off," Rex said as he flipped the thermostat all the way to the left.

I carefully laid down the new paper drop-cloth I had just bought at Pierson's over the hallway floor and set to work. Though the furnace was off, I could still feel some heat drifting up from under the grate, through the paper. My toes felt warm through my socks and the paper drop-cloth crinkled beneath them.

When I finished the closet, I rushed off, apologizing to Patrick for leaving him with my dirty brush and paint pan. I said nothing about the drop-cloth. But that's what I thought about that night as I lay in bed. The drop-cloth over that heater. It should not be there. I knew that. But surely Patrick would have moved it as he worked his way around the house, painting the window trim in the other rooms. "Maybe I'll call Patrick," I thought.

I dialed Patrick's number. Busy.

I lay back in bed. If I could just ask Patrick, it would put my mind at ease. I'm sure everything's okay, but. . . I dialed his number 10 minutes later. Still busy.

I'm sure Patrick moved it, I thought. And wasn't the heater turned off, anyway? You worry too much, Emily, I thought. This is just more of your obsessing.

Then I pictured that thin brown paper over the grate. I pictured the heater coming on in the cold, dark, empty house with no one there. I pictured an edge of the drop-cloth curling into flame, and the flame spreading, consuming the entire sheet, climbing the walls. I pictured the worst unfolding before my eyes, the way you picture your child falling down and stabbing himself when you catch him running with the scissors. All I had to do to prevent all that was to get in the car and make the drive from Arcata.

No, it's too late, I reasoned. You have too much to do tomorrow to spend 45 minutes driving to Eureka and back. You won't get home until almost midnight. Everything will be fine. I fell asleep.

The phone rang at 7:30 the next morning just as I was getting ready to leave.

"Is this Emily Gurnon?" a woman caller asked.


"This is the Eureka Fire Department . . ."

Immediately, I knew what this call was about. I listened as what I had imagined came horribly true. As I drove to the house that cold morning, in my '84 Honda with the crummy heater, the trip felt agonizingly long. I shivered, my hair still wet from the shower, my freezing fingers clenched white on the steering wheel. What was I going to find when I got there? The fire department had said only that a neighbor had reported smoke coming from the house. Would it still be standing? Or would I drive up to a burned-out hulk?

As I neared the corner to our new street, I felt my stomach drop: Three orange traffic cones blocked the road. I got out to move them, then drove up to the house. Fortunately, it was still there, but fire engines filled the block. My voice failed me as I approached a firefighter, and I tapped my chest. "I'm the owner," I mouthed.

Fire Chief Eric Smith and Capt. Mike Schultz, as kind and reassuring as could be, led me inside. The hallway now consisted of a large hole in the floor and burned-out walls. The ceiling was gone. Soot and ash were tracked all over the wood floor. There was no evidence that the closet I had been painting the day before had even existed. Smoke covered every wall, every ceiling; the beautiful paint job we had worked on for weeks was ruined. Firefighters had to knock out two front windows and break the front door. The heat melted the top of the refrigerator.

Rex, who had arrived minutes earlier to do a final clean-up, put his arms around me. "I'm sorry, sweetie," he said. I burst into tears.

Such destruction, in such a short time. Firefighters told me that our next-door neighbor had seen smoke coming from the bathroom window about 7 a.m. and called 911. The heater had, in fact, been turned off, but "off," I learned, was 55 degrees, and the temperature outside had dipped into the 30s that night. Fortunately, the fire had not burned for very long and the house was still structurally sound, they said. I found out later that day that our insurance will pay to get the house back in the condition it was in on Wednesday, before the fire. It will pay our rent while we pay the mortgage. And our landlords had not yet rented our current place to new tenants.

Days later, I am left with so many feelings: Regret and anger, that I had the chance to prevent it and did nothing. Disappointment, that all that work is gone. Frustration, that our months-long limbo will continue. But most of all, relief that my mistake didn't hurt my husband, our two precious children, myself or anyone else. Thank God for that. I am thankful, too, for all the concern and good wishes expressed by our friends and neighbors. I'm counting my blessings. I'm also putting a new message on the refrigerator: Trust your gut.

 A spate of furnace fires

Floor furnaces are apparently to blame for a series of fires that have significantly damaged four homes in and around Eureka lately.

The two most recent fires occurred just last week. Two others occurred in December.

According to a press release from the Eureka Fire Department, in each of the four fires residents thought the floor furnace was turned off because the thermostat had been adjusted to the lowest setting.

In reality, the furnaces were not turned off. Chilly early morning temperatures activated them, and the heat they emitted in turn ignited floor coverings placed over the vents.

As a result, the Eureka Fire Department and the Humboldt Fire District are reminding people to be cautious when using floor furnaces and not to place any covering over the floor vents.

"All the fires were extinguished quickly, but there was substantial damage around the furnaces," said Dave Gibbs, Humboldt Fire District fire chief. "It's a preventable fire."

All of the homes are repairable, Gibbs added.

No one was injured in any of the four fires.

Peace button business booming

Peace buttons from peaceproject.comThe help wanted ad came via e-mail. "The Peace Resource Project of Arcata is in immediate need of button-makers due to a tremendous surge in demand for the peace and social justice buttons they produce," it read, going on to explain the deal: piece work, part-time or full.

According to Peace Resource Project associate Shannon Sandlin, the surge in business is a direct result of increased demand from those in the growing anti-war movement. "There has been a large demand for peace items since President Bush has been talking about bombing Iraq," she said. Big sellers include "Drop Bush Not Bombs" and "Peace is Patriotic."

"We've been busier than ever, at least since I've worked here, although I think during the Gulf War we were even busier," said Sandlin, who has been with the company for three years. "We've been hiring lots of help, office helpers and other workers. We have anywhere from six to 12 at any given time, some are those who come in and make buttons on piece rate, and we need more.

"A person who's really moving quick can make about 300 buttons an hour on a manual press," she said, adding, "We just got a new machine that can make three times that in an hour. Of course it still requires a human to run it."

Besides cranking out peace buttons, the 20-year-old Arcata business puts slogans on bumper stickers, posters, rubber stamps, magnets, T-shirts, patches, Frisbees and mugs promoting environmental and recycling awareness, a woman's right to choose, vegetarian causes and more general sentiments like "Question Authority" or "Why Be Normal?"

Sandlin said the company sent out 19,312 buttons through mail order in January. In addition they sold around 10,000 at the recent massive rallies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. "Compare that with January of last year -- still post 9/11 -- where we sold 4,345 buttons."

The company's newest addition is a classic button from the '60s, back by popular demand, with a white peace sign on a black background with flared spokes. "We also have a larger peace sign with a rainbow background; that one's been hot too," said Sandlin.

-- reported by Bob Doran

Water board staff seeks meeting

The staff of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is requesting a top-level meeting of three state agencies to address alleged overlogging of the Van Duzen watershed by the Pacific Lumber Co. (See "Sacrifice Zone," Jan. 16)

In a Feb. 5 letter, Susan Warner, executive officer of the water board staff, asked Andrea Tuttle, director of the California Department of Forestry, Stan Dixon, chairman of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Art Baggett, chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board, to convene a "liaison committee" to discuss cutting in the Van Duzen, southeast of Eureka.

The three agencies are all signatories of the Management Agency Agreement, intended to both allow logging and protect water quality on PL's lands.

The convening of the panel could conceivably lead to a reconsideration of the rate of logging being conducted by Pacific Lumber across the entire 211,000 acres that it owns on the North Coast. Initially, though, the panel would look at the Van Duzen, where the water board staff believes cutting is proceeding in violation of the "sustained yield plan," a document governing logging on the company's holdings that was part of the 1999 Headwaters deal.

The staff says that in four years, from 1999 to the present, the company has clearcut 900 more acres in the Van Duzen than it was supposed to for the ten-year period beginning in 1999. The pace of logging is jeopardizing water quality and aquatic life, the water board staff fears.

Bill Snyder, deputy chief of forest practice for CDF, said last month that water board staff is misinterpreting the plan. The harvest volume restrictions don't apply to specific watersheds, he said, but to the company's entire ownership. When looked at that way, he said, it becomes clear that no violation is taking place.

In a related development, the water board staff last week filed a "notice of nonconcurrence" with CDF regarding a proposed timber harvest plan in the Van Duzen. The staff is expected to oppose another PL logging plan in the Van Duzen that is also before CDF.

Cougar sighted

Hikers who use Arcata's Community Forest take heed: A mountain lion was recently seen near the forest's northern edge.

It's not the first time a lion has been spotted in the forest. In 2001, residents of a trailer park in McKinleyville saw a cougar. The owner of the trailer park tracked the animal down and shot it. Hunters with the state Fish and Game Department eventually killed the cat.

The Arcata Police Department recommends against hiking alone and says children should be kept close and within sight at all times.

Most cougars will avoid a confrontation, so give the lion a way out -- never approach the animal. At the same time, if you are confronted by a cougar, don't try to run away -- the cat might chase you.

Instead, stand and face the animal, make eye contact, pick up children, try not to crouch or bend over. Do all you can to appear larger, wave your arms and speak in a loud voice, throw stones or branches. The idea is to convince the lion that you are not prey and may instead be dangerous. Immediately report any contact with a lion to the Arcata Police Department and the state Department of Fish and Game.

Target store delayed

In a unanimous decision last week, the California Coastal Commission said the City of Eureka needs to prove that a buffer of less than 100 feet between a proposed Target store and Humboldt Bay would not harm wildlife.

The decision comes almost two months after the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) appealed the project. EPIC made its challenge within days of the City Council's approval of Target's plans.

The commission's decision to hold its own hearing on the matter means demolition of the old Montgomery Ward store and construction of a Target store could be delayed for months. Target had planned to open the new store in 2004. The coastal commission will probably hold a hearing on Target sometime in April.

In December, the City Council unanimously approved Target's environmental impact report and gave Target its coastal development permit. Target plans to build a 139,000-square-foot retail store and garden center on the north end of town. The new store will replace the smaller Montgomery Ward building.

In its appeal, EPIC contended that the city was violating its own general plan by allowing buffers of less than 100 feet between the store and the bay. Target plans to build buffers ranging from 40 feet to 250 feet. When Montgomery Ward was built no buffers where required.

Nay and maybe

The response was resoundingly negative last week when Carol Rische of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District presented the Arcata City Council with an Alaska businessman's plan to ship Mad River water out of the area. (See "Is the water bag proposal a Trojan Horse?" Feb. 6)

The presentation prompted Mayor Bob Ornelas to launch into a scorching tirade against the plan. Other council members also voiced objections -- including the concern that selling water to Ric Davidge's company, Aqueous Intl., would cause international trade laws to kick in and lead to the district losing control over its water.

The Eureka City Council greeted the proposal more warmly during a similar presentation also held last week, but advised the district to proceed with caution.

A task force comprised in part of elected representatives from the seven municipalities served by the district is expected to take a position early next week on whether the district should seriously consider the proposal.

Cell towers blocked

The Humboldt County Planning Commission recently gave a thumbs-down to two cell towers planned for the Arcata Bottoms.

On a 4-2 vote, the commissioners said neither U.S. Cellular nor Cal-North Cellular had done enough to satisfy environmental concerns raised by residents.

The vote is far from the end of the story, as the county Board of Supervisors will make the ultimate decision. Moreover, commissioners unanimously approved allowing U.S. Cellular to continue discussions with Arcata officials.

In the face of opposition, both companies have been scaling back their projects. U.S. Cellular's tower has shrunk from 150 to 70 feet. The company has also hatched a plan to hide the pole in a fake water tower. Cal-North Cellular has proposed a similar disguise for its 60-foot tower. The two towers would be within a half-mile of each other.

Residents say they don't want to see the landscape flooded with cell phone towers. The cell phone companies argue that the towers are needed to improve service.

A plan by Humboldt State University to build a cell tower on its property could reduce the need for towers in the Arcata Bottoms. Another idea under discussion calls for building a 10-foot tower on top of the Arcata Fire Department.

At a joint meeting with the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors held last month, there was talk of freezing cell tower construction until the county develops a cell tower policy. However, the idea was dropped because a countywide policy is years from being finalized.

Look out in SoHum

Southern Humboldt is losing a fire lookout as the state's budget crisis is forcing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to abandon 22 lookout posts across the state this year.

The Pratt Mountain fire lookout, east of Garberville, will not be manned this year.

The agency said it will rely on people with cell phones to call in fires.

The federal government will continue to maintain four lookouts in Humboldt and Del Norte counties on the Six Rivers National Forest.

Lookouts, who earn about $34,000 a year, are crucial in enabling firefighters to jump on fires early. They also save money because they reduce the number of costly reconnaissance flights sent out for false alarms.

CDF must cut $6.7 million from its budget. The midyear cuts in staffing will result in a net savings of $150,000. In fiscal year 2003-2004, CDF is expected to save $795,000.


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