ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Up in Smoke: the Arcata Fire


" The firemen were there. The fire trucks were there. The water was going and it looked to me like they got the fire down. Suddenly the flames were no longer visible. We thought that was it -- the show's probably over. It got less and less eventful. It looked like it was under control. Everyone agreed that the apartments [above Marino's Bar] were probably ruined. We went to the Alibi and got a pitcher [of beer]. We were in there maybe 45 minutes. We walked outside thinking maybe it would be over.

"It was over, all right. It was in flames. It was like a towering Marino's inferno. We were in shock. We were like,

`It's lost. All those buildings are lost.' We watched it cave in. It was breathtaking. We couldn't believe it. We stood and watched until we couldn't stand it any more. ... Some people were crying. We met up with friends. It was one of our hangouts. We liked the kitsch, the duck-taped vinyl booths, the sticky tables. We were reminiscing as it was disappearing. A lot of memories just went whoosh. When we couldn't stand it any more we left. "

a purchasing clerk at Humboldt State University and lead singer
for the Cutters, the last band to play at Marino's

[photo of fire]

Above two photos by Doug Riley-Thron ©2001


Three buildings, including one of the most architecturally significant Victorians in Arcata, were lost in the fire. [see "Lost History" at the bottom of this story] So was a family-owned store that provided specialty automobile paints to car buffs. But perhaps the most significant loss was the contents of the often controversial Northcoast Environmental Center, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and was preparing to make the last mortgage payment on its modest one-story commercial building on 9th Street. Gone are three decades of NEC records and archives, and an extensive and unique library that drew researchers from around the country.

Police and fire investigators are saying the fire probably started in the ceiling, roof or attic space about half way down the NEC building along a wall shared with Marino's. But the cause of the fire is undetermined and will probably remain so.

Discounting some wild rumors -- one story had an FBI agent in a low-flying airplane dropping napalm on the NEC roof -- there is no indication at this time that it was arson, according to Arcata Police Lt. Randy Mendoza. "The big problem is it was a hot fire. Evidence is going to be difficult to find."

If not arson, how did it start? Faulty wiring? Smoking, drinking party-goers on the NEC roof? Why did it take so long for someone to call 911? How long did it really take before the fire department -- with a station just down the street -- to arrive on the scene? Why were two firefighters with a hose just standing outside the NEC offices doing nothing as it burned? [See "For the Record" at the bottom of this story]

And how did the fire that appeared to be under control time and again break loose and continue to burn?

A few answers are slowly emerging as the ashes cool.

[aerial photo of Arcata]

The burning of downtown Arcata:
The Croghan building burned in 1979. Today the lot stands empty. B. Hensel's Hardware, destroyed by fire in 1990, was rebuilt.

C. Feuerwerker Building burned in 1994 and was rebuilt.

D. Three buildings up in smoke July 25, 2001. 1965

Aerial photo of Arcata, courtesy of Hensel's Hardware.




ANGELA BROWN (photo below) and her boyfriend Gary Harp were entertaining his brother and a friend from Santa Cruz Wednesday night. They had dinner at Arcata Pizza and Deli, then headed for the Plaza.

"We normally wouldn't go [to Marino's] on a Wednesday, but we wanted to show them the bar," Brown said.

"We went in and were only there for a few minutes and everybody kept saying `God, what's that smell?' You could smell the smoke. No one had a clue that there was a fire. There was no heat. We noticed the door guy and Jade, this guy from Australia, they were running back and forth and going in the back."

[photo of Angela Brown]Harp ordered a pitcher of beer and the bartender, Moana Hoffman, got out chilled glasses.

"At that point Moana said, `Oh my God, there's a fire upstairs,'" Brown continues. "We were thinking there was no danger. We'd been there 15 minutes and there was no sign of anything.

"We hadn't even exchanged money yet. She was trying to decide if she should take our money. No one could tell how serious it was. [The employees] were trying to determine if someone had already called the fire department. Moana just threw her hands up and said, `That's it, I'm calling the fire department whether they've been called or not. We need to make sure.'

"She grabbed the phone. Everyone else was still chitchatting and standing around, the jukebox was still playing. The door guys were trying to figure out if there was a danger."

Finally the patrons were told, "Go on, ladies and gentlemen, you need to get out of here. We need to make sure everything is safe." The bartender told them to leave their drinks behind. "They'll still be here when you come back," she said. The jukebox was turned off.

According to Brown, everyone was calm as they shuffled outside into the street.

"We all looked and we could see a little bit of smoke at that point coming from the side of Marino's from the NEC side. We didn't see any flames." Then Brown and her entourage joined other spectators.

Meanwhile at the APD headquarters, five calls reporting a structure fire came in within one minute -- at 11:21 p.m. (See time reconstruction table.) And Hoffman the bartender was right: With all the activity in the bar -- the smell, the rushing back and forth by employees and others -- no one had called 911. Hoffman's call came in just seconds after someone made a report from the Jambalaya, a bar around the corner on H Street.

How fast were the police to respond to the emergency? According to spectators and the log of calls, pretty fast, but then they are usually patrolling the Plaza at that hour. The first officer on the scene reported back by radio to APD headquarters at 11:23 p.m., two minutes after the flood of 911 calls. Then, as the crowd continued to grow, many began asking, "Where the hell is the fire department?"

[photo of Marino's facade] Marino's facade after demolition.

Although it seemed like forever, the time between the first police officer on the scene and the arrival of Engine No. 6 that had to be driven over from the Arcata Fire Department's Mad River Station was five minutes, just six minutes after the APD dispatcher put out the call.

"A fire engine came but there was no water [right away]," Brown said. "It looked like they were trying to get the hoses organized. By the time we finally saw water being put on the building, it was already blazing. The flames were shooting above the roof. The fire really took a liking to Marino's."

The crowd and its frustration continued to grow.


JACK NOUNNAN had been at the movies that night, then stopped by Don's Donuts for a Thai sandwich.

"I was going to the [NEC] office to get my jacket because it was cold out. I walked past the corner [of 9th and H] and some people screamed from down the block. When they yelled, `Fire, fire!' I ran. ... I looked over and there was flame on the roof [of the NEC]."

He circled the block and entered the NEC through the side door in a parking lot across from the North Coast Co-op. Nounnan, a member of the environmental activists group Earth First, had a key to the employees' entrance. Although he was not an employee, he rented desk space from the NEC while he worked to coordinate supplies to Earth Firsters protesting Pacific Lumber Co.'s logging in the Mattole Valley.

He said he tried to call 911 -- a call from the NEC was never recorded -- but he gave up, thinking others had already called. According to Nounnan, there was still no evidence of a fire inside -- no smoke, no flames, nothing. He ran to get the fire extinguisher because he "heard a thump on the roof."

[photo of firefighters] Firefighters douse the remains of the North Coast Environmental Center

"I realized that maybe [it was] the wall because I'd seen the flames licking up the wall of the apartments above Marino's. It was right at the edge [where the two buildings share a common wall]. It could have been from the apartments or from the kitchen down below in Marino's, I didn't know."

Still, Nounnan said, there was "nothing out of the ordinary" inside the NEC -- until he heard the thump -- and he went to investigate.

About halfway up the building is a storage room that held the furnace, art and supplies, and back issues of EcoNews, the NEC's monthly newsletter. While checking the room "the ceiling in the back of the [storage] room toward Marino's broke through and flames came through."

He quickly extinguished the flareup and prepared to stay inside to fight the fire from the interior when an APD officer came in and ordered him out.

Nounnan estimated that 10 minutes had passed since he first saw the flames, another 10 minutes before the first fire truck arrived and "maybe five minutes" before the fire-fighting equipment was operational. He said it "seemed like" a total of about 25 minutes.


JUSTIN MCDONALD, a firefighter on duty at AFD Mad River Station near the hospital, had just turned off the TV and lights and settled into bed. The call came in at 11:22 p.m. -- structure fire at the NEC.

[photo of McDonald]McDonald knew the building well since it was right next door to the auto paint store owned by his father, Dennis McDonald, and his uncle Kenneth Cook, a business they bought from Cook's grandfather in 1985. McDonald quickly suited up, pulled the card indicating the locations of the hydrants and departed the station in Engine No. 6. He listened en route to the radio transmissions indicating people were in the [NEC] building.

McDonald said he knew the fire "was a bad one" when he rounded the corner at 14th Street.

"I saw a large column of smoke, fire on the roof of the [single story] NEC and smoke and flames from the second floor -- out the eves of the roof of Marino's.

"My first concern was not the paint store -- it was Marino's. There are lots of people in the bar that time of night, and the apartments, people living upstairs -- and getting water to the fire." He said he was relieved to learn the police had successfully evacuated the buildings by the time he arrived.

"They did their job, so we could do ours," he said.

As he pulled the engine up to the scene he saw Ralph Altizer, assistant fire chief, also arriving -- the time was 11:28 --the two had a quick conference in the middle of the street. The plan was to drop two lines, strip other necessary equipment off the truck, drive the truck east on 9th Street to the hydrant on the Plaza and set up while other equipment and firefighters arrived.

Why not use the hydrant at 9th and I&nbsp?

"We need to plan for the worst case scenario," McDonald said. "I wanted the lines out of the hot zone. I don't want to be locked in and have to disconnect [if the fire spreads].

McDonald said the growing throng of spectators that night was a problem.

"I was impeded by a lot of people trying to get through the crowd to the hydrant. I told the police officer to get the people back." (APD Lt. Randy Mendoza confirmed, "Many, not all, but many spectators were drunk. It's not uncommon that time of night on the Plaza.")

McDonald, one of AFD's paid firefighters, said he didn't hold out much hope in saving Marino's, a bar he had visited once or twice "in his bar days."

"It's one of those things. Marino's is an old building, balloon frame construction [no fire breaks in walls, floors and ceilings], no sprinklers."

He stayed at his post at 9th and H tending the water most of the night, witnessing one DUI arrest by a CHP officer.

McDonald said people don't understand how fires are fought and what restrictions firefighters face. For instance, about the two firemen who were holding a hose outside the NEC while the fire raged inside?

"We can't go in without a backup or do anything to threaten life or safety unless there is a known rescue [someone who needs immediate rescue] -- then all bets are off. You can go in.

"The [CalOSHA safety] rules are `two in, two out.' We had two guys inside already. We have to have two outside so there can be someone to pull us out. "

McDonald briefly saw his grandmother who went off to join Justin's wife, Lainey, his mother, father and uncle, watching from the parking lot at the North Coast Co-op. McDonald left his post once during the night when he heard over the radio that other firefighters were being pulled out of the paint store they tried unsuccessfully to defend.

"About 2 in the morning I heard they were `going defensive' on the paint store -- that it was lost," McDonald said. "I asked for relief. I figured it was time to go say hi to my family."


RALPH ALTIZER, AFD assistant fire chief, knows a lot about terms like "going defensive," which means when lives are threatened or the building deemed too far gone to save, firefighters will pull out and set up lines of defense to try to save adjacent buildings. That decision and a hundred others on a fire the size of the one last week has to be made by the incident commander. That night it was Altizer.

[photo of Altizer]In his more than 30 years as a firefighter, including 20 years in Eureka, Altizer has witnessed the profession go from a job of "put-the-wet-stuff-on-the-red-stuff" to greater and greater levels of sophistication. He spent much of the week following the fire trying to educate the news media -- and the public -- about modern firefighting and responding to criticism of his department.

"A rural area like ours has a full range of fire departments from all-volunteer companies like Beginnings in Briceland, with an old truck and not much training, to Eureka," he told the Journal. "Arcata is somewhere in the middle with its force of 60 volunteers and 12 paid professionals.

"Eureka has a full-service, fully paid staff. With its mutual aid agreement with Humboldt Fire District No. 1, Eureka can have four engines and a [ladder] truck on scene within three minutes."

Elapsed time is critical, Altizer explained, because structure fires grow exponentially, often doubling in size every minute.

"It may just be a small blaze, but within five minutes, a structure can be fully involved."

Which has Altizer wondering why no one at Marino's called 911 during the precious minutes before 11:21 p.m. and why people like Jack Nounnan and others who saw actual flames on the rooftop failed to call.

Altizer has been asked repeatedly why the AFD didn't just roll a truck from its downtown station and start spraying water.

"Because on nights, weekends and holidays the downtown station [one of three in the district] is not staffed," he said.

When a 911 call comes in during one of those times, a truck staffed by a professional firefighter is dispatched either from the Mad River Station or the McKinleyville Station while the other station monitors all radio traffic. In addition, a pager call automatically goes out to all staff and volunteers who proceed directly to their stations to suit up and bring more vehicles and equipment to the fire.

It turns out there was a volunteer sleeping at the downtown station the night of the fire, but he is not allowed to roll the truck without two others on board. According to the 911 log, the first truck from the downtown station, a rescue truck, was the second unit on the scene, arriving six minutes after the engine from Mad River -- 12 minutes after the pager call went out to volunteers. McDonald said by the time the rescue truck arrived, they had water flowing on the fire.

Within the first minute on the scene Altizer made the call to go offensive -- send in firefighters into the buildings -- and he called for backup. Arcata Fire Chief Dave White, who lives a few more miles up Fickle Hill than Altizer, arrived minutes later and took over as chief of operations, assigning crew. Altizer remained overall incident commander, the one whose job is "to think ahead" -- what if things goes wrong as it did that night.

"We had two crews in Marino's on both floors, and we were attempting to `darken down' the fire in the NEC and had a crew in there as well," Altizer said. But when it became evident that the fire was running between floors of Marino's, into the attic, "We pulled out and pulled out of the NEC as well and went completely defensive within the first half hour," he said.

At that time they still thought they could save the surrounding buildings including the attached paint store because it had a fire wall "of sorts" -- an old fashioned wall built solidly of 2 x 4's -- between it and the NEC. Two firefighters were deployed into the paint store attic. Then, about two and a half hours into the fire, things went bad again. Black smoke began billowing over from the NEC into the attic.

"There was a second huge burst of smoke in the attic and we went defensive," said Altizer, who then had to walk across the street and tell Dennis McDonald, Justin's father and one of his own AFD fire commissioners, that he couldn't save his building.

All in all, Altizer -- and Dennis McDonald -- had nothing but praise for the department. There were no injuries to firefighters or civilians. All surrounding stores were saved including PC Sacchi's paint and body shop, which had its automobiles successfully evacuated.


STEVE WILSON stood outside Marino's Saturday night, 48 hours after the fire that consumed his business, wearing a black Marino's tee-shirt and Harley-Davidson suspenders decorated with flames.

"Just trying to keep my sense of humor," he explained.

[photo of Wilson] Marino's owner Steve Wilson confers with a fireman.

"That's what's left of was my dream," he says pointing to the pile of rubble. Wilson bought the bar just three months ago and although the business was insured, "all the insurance will do is pay off the loans."

Wilson said he was frustrated that he is not allowed to search the wreckage since the whole area has been declared a hazardous waste zone because of the paint store contents. That hasn't stopped the looters. One scavenger was seen carting away a charred case of Red Bull. And a clerk at Arcata Liquors became suspicious when someone paid for their purchase with blackened quarters. Wilson said the coins probably came from the jar he kept in his office.

"But the police said there was nothing they could do," he said.

Fred Trump, who still owns the Marino's building he purchased in 1985, flew into town over the weekend from his home in Arizona. He said he has "adequate" insurance but no plans yet to rebuild.

"I had one offer for someone who wants a parking lot," he told the Journal.

The McDonalds and Cook also own Arcata Auto, Sequoia Auto and Evergreen Auto parts stores; They say they will rebuild on the corner lot at 9th and I.

The Northcoast Environmental Center has already launched a phoenix-rising-up-from-the-flames fundraising campaign to rebuild.

NEC EcoNews Editor Sid Dominitz -- who, along with Arcata Mayor Connie Stewart and NEC founder Tim McKay, is one of a handful of paid staff at the NEC -- was philosophical.

[photo of NEC staff members] NEC board member Larry Levine, left, Sid dominitz and Tim McKay.

There were several negative messages left on the fence by the NEC after the fire -- including one that read, "Mill up Luna and build the environmental center then have Julia sit on it for two years." But Dominitz said mostly there has been an outpouring of concern for the loss of the building and especially, its contents.

What exactly was lost?

"Everything. Mainly we lost this unique archive of 30 years of environmental activism, a 9,500-volume library, dozens of file cabinets full of ephemeral material, some of it not existing anywhere else, for example, the history of Redwood Park. Scholars came there all the time to study up on stuff and it's all gone. I don't know that anyone else has anything like that."

The NEC library was a repository of historic documents unlike anything you will find in the Humboldt Room at the county library or at Humboldt State.

"There are some librarians who say that this was the most exhaustive library in Northern California. The files went from toxics to recycling, cancer, politics. We had files on all the politicians, all the obituary pages.

"You know Tim [McKay, NEC executive director and founder] was a history major and believed in accumulating as much history as possible. He would go through the newspapers and clip out anything related to environmental issues. And not just one newspaper, plenty of newspapers and all sorts of other publications. We had this library of not only 9,500 volumes but all these magazines and local publications and national publications -- Sierra Club, Audubon, New Scientist -- hundreds of titles."

[photo of burned files] File drawers salvaged from NEC.

McKay's life work was a focused environmental archive, the equivalent of the work of Susie Baker Fountain, the Humboldt County historian who clipped and saved information on area history.

"We also had people who had been librarians working on it over the years. Stan Larson, who was an industrial librarian, and now we have Gail Sellstrom carrying on Stan's work. It was all organized by the Dewey Decimal System. Then there were environmental impact reports ..."

Future plans include a resurrection of the lost library in some form.

"People have copies of some things in their homes," Dominitz said, "but obviously there are things that will never be replaced and that's the biggest loss."


Source: Automatic computer log of 911 calls to Arcata Police Department Dispatch Center

Wednesday, July 25

23:21:34 Call from Jambalaya, 24 second duration

23:21:49 Call from Marino's, 18 second duration

23:22:04 Call from resident D. Abel, Marino's Apt. 2, 35 second duration

23:22:36 Call from North Coast Co-op public coin telephone, 37 second duration

23:21:13 Call from Arcata Liquors, 4:43 minutes duration

23:22 Dispatch call reporting structure fire, Northcoast Environmental Center, Case No. 01-2607

Source: APD 911 tape, according to screen detail, transcribed July 30 by APD. (Audio transmission was lost due to machine malfunction.)

23:22 Dispatch call reporting structure fire

23:23 McKinleyville station echoes original call

23:23 Officer Newby on scene

23:24 Sgt. Chapman on crowd control

23:24 Mad River Station Engine No. 6 "responds" and Firefighter Justin McDonald prepares to leave

23:25 AFD Chief Dave White and Assistant Chief Ralph Altizer respond

23:27 Officer Peterson reports "subject inside" NEC

23:28 McDonald on Engine No. 6 at 11th and K reports "column of smoke"

23:28 Altizer on scene, Engine No. 6 on scene

23:29 Altizer requests mutual aid

23:29 2nd alarm pulled requesting more help

Source: Manual AFD log monitoring all radio activity, recorded by Larry Wood at the McKinleyville Station (adjusted for time discrepancy of three minutes ahead of official APD 911 tape).

23:33 Chief White arrives on scene

23:34 Tanker No. 3 (ladder truck) responds, Rescue Truck No. 4 on scene (from AFD downtown). By this time water is flowing to the fire, according to McDonald.

23:42 Water tender arrives from AFD Mad River Station

23:44 Eureka Engine No. 4 arrives

23:49 Eureka aerial platform arrives

Thursday, July 26

00:28 Request additional engine from Eureka/HFD No. 1 for downtown station coverage

00:39 Eureka engine arrives downtown

01:30 Request additional personnel from CDF/Blue Lake/Fieldbrook

01:54 Trinidad CDF on scene

02:24 Loleta Fire Department on scene

06:38 Loleta responds to Arcata 911 call for medical emergency


[historical photo of Marino's]AS THE RUINS OF THE BUILDINGS on 9th Street smoldered, Arcata historian Susie Van Kirk came to get her first look at the wreckage. She gazed at the pile of debris, shook her head and said, "So much history lost."

Van Kirk knows the stories of most of the buildings in downtown Arcata from years of historical research.

"Marino's was built in 1891. It was the Union Hall Association," she said. "It was a fraternal hall upstairs. C.S. Daniels had his furniture warerooms and undertaking establishment in the lower part. The upstairs was finished with curly redwood, lard oil finish, walnut rail on the stairway, plastered throughout."

According to the Arcata Union newspaper, it was "the joint property of the Native Sons, Native Daughters and Orangemen of this place. The new Union Hall building on 9th street is completed and is a fine substantial edifice. The building is 30 by 106 feet, two stories."

The buildings interim owners were Arcata Parlor No. 20 of the Native Sons of the Native West. Humboldt Manufacturing Co. had Arcata Cash Store there (later) in the 1890s, then Fred Stoddard had a bike and engine repair shop, Van Kirk said.

"Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Banducci and Pritchard opened a bar but within a few years Marino Orlandi replaced Pritchard in the partnership, and in the late 1930s Marino bought out his partners. Then in 1947 he bought the building and converted the upstairs into apartments. Included in the bar were two alleys and the establishment was called the Arcata Bowl."

Van Kirk couldn't find much information about the Arcata Paints building aside from the fact that it had always been associated with automobiles. It was built in 1947 for Herb Kramer's business, Kramer Auto Supply.

While Van Kirk is an architectural researcher, when she spoke of history lost last week she was not just referring to loss of the structures. She helped start the Northcoast Environmental Center, the Arcata Recycling Center and was an original member of the NEC board of directors when the NEC opened in 1971.

At first the organization found space on 10th street in the building now occupied by Adventure's Edge, formerly a bicycle shop called Arcata Transit Authority.

"They had a little closet kind of thing in the back, that's where we were," said Van Kirk. "The recycling center was in the yard on the east side."

As the environmental/recycling center expanded it took over the east side of the building. "We moved a few doors down to where the real estate office is now. Then we moved again to the corner of 11th and H across from the Pythian Castle. Wear It Well is there now. We were there for quite a while. Then we moved to 9th Street" sometime in the 1980s.

When NEC bought the building there was a dry cleaner there on one side and a hairdresser on the other. The structure that housed it was originally a dairy.

"In 1933 Chris Christensen moved the White City Dairy into a new building constructed by Axel Anderson on the south side of 9th. Christensen had purchased a dairy from the Cypress Grove Milk Route and renamed it the White City Dairy. Anderson built the building and had his insurance office on the east side of the building. Christensen occupied the west half as his dairy. He had a cold storage place, a pasteurizing plant and a bottling machine."

While Van Kirk mourns the loss of the buildings, it was the destruction of the NEC papers that brought her close to tears.

"The library was a remarkable collection of documents in one place, a 30-year history of environmental activism on the North Coast all of the comments we wrote, that Tim [McKay, NEC executive director] wrote about forest service plans, on the California Wilderness Bill in the early `80s and the maps that went along with that." And, of course, the history of the establishment of Redwood National Park.

"That kind of history just cannot be replaced. It's gone," Van Kirk said. "Some of us have things, like Lucille Vinyard would have extensive history and I have boxes and boxes on the things I did. But what Tim had was what everyone did. It's irreplaceable. It's a history that's gone."

Photo from Reflections of Arcata's History: Eighty Years of Architecture by Susie Van Kirk



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