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San Juan Island waterfront restaurant destroyed by early morning blaze

Smoke billows from the wreckage and the roof of Downriggers after a fire gutted the building
Smoke billows from the wreckage and the roof of Downriggers after a fire gutted the building's interior in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 17.
— image credit: Journal photo/Scott Rasmussen

A swift moving fire tore through the interior of the Downriggers Restaurant in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 17, leaving the venerable Friday Harbor waterfront eatery in ruins.

No injuries were reported and the cause of the fire remains unknown, San Juan Fire & Rescue Chief Steve Marler said. Firefighters were still battling numerous hotspots and outbreaks of fire in the ceiling of the Front Street split-level building nearly five hours after the blaze first was reported.

The building is owned by the Port of Friday Harbor.

Downriggers fireFirefighting crews responded to the scene minutes after off-duty San Juan County Sheriff's dispatcher T. J. Granum alerted authorities that the building was on fire at about 2:30 a.m. Despite its intensity, firefighters were able to keep the fire contained to the upper level of the two-story building and prevent it from spreading to the lower level, which house offices of four other businesses.

"There may be a bit of smoke and water damage down below, but we were able to keep the fire from damaging the downstairs part of the building," Marler said. "We were able to get computers and most of the equipment out of those offices on the bottom floor. At one point the entire ceiling was on fire from one end to the other."

The owner of the restaurant, Debbie Rishel, said she received a call that the building was on fire at about 3 a.m. The restaurant, which employees 50 workers at this time of the year, reportedly closed for the evening at about midnight.

"I'm in shock," said Rishel, who has owned the restaurant for two decades. With the help of many Downriggers workers that were at the scene around 7 a.m., she was able to retrieve a stockpile of food that had been set aside in a storage cooler for the dinner that the high school booster club, Purple & Gold, will put on at county fair later in the evening. Purple & Gold member Kris Brown said that the dinner will also serve as a fundraiser for Rishel and the Downriggers crew. The dinner gets under way at 4:30 p.m.

Port Director Marilyn O'Conner said owners of the boats moored near the scene of the fire were notified of the fire so they could be evacuated. Islands Oil Spill Association was dispatched to the scene of the fire to help prevent charred debris or pollutants from reaching the harbor.

With a busy schedule of whale watch tours expected later in the day, O'Conner said that the portDownriggers fire 2 would make accommodations for the bottom-floor business displace by the fire to operate off the pier of Spring Street Landing. The ground floor of the building is home to Friday Harbor Marine, San Juan Excursions and San Juan Safaris.

The first wave of fire fighters at the scene were able to battle the blaze from inside the building for only a few minutes, Marler said. It quickly made its way into the ceiling, spreading rapidly and forcing fire fighters to evacuate, he said.

Fire fighters from Orcas and Lopez islands arrived at the scene at about 6 a.m., on the early morning ferry, to provide support. Anacortes Fire Department dispatched a fire fighting crew, an engine and a battalion chief to provide backup for local firefighters, in the event a fire broke out somewhere else on the island.

Marler said the fire department expects to bring a crane or excavating equipment to the site later in the day to help disassemble the roof of the building, and to help ensure that all the hot spots are extinguished.

 

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