San Juan Island waterfront restaurant destroyed by fire | Update

Smoke billows from the roof of Downriggers Restaurant in the wake of the early morning Aug. 17 fire that destroyed the Friday Harbor waterfront restaurant.  - Journal photo/Scott Rasmussen
Smoke billows from the roof of Downriggers Restaurant in the wake of the early morning Aug. 17 fire that destroyed the Friday Harbor waterfront restaurant.
— image credit: Journal photo/Scott Rasmussen

The collapsed roof was expected to be peeled back from the wreckage by Tuesday, allowing fire investigators to begin sifting through fire-ravaged Downriggers Restaurant in search of clues.

San Juan Island Fire Department Chief Steve Marler has a strong suspicion where the answer might be found to the cause of the blaze that destroyed the long-standing waterfront restaurant in the early hours of Aug. 17.

“My guess is we’ll be focusing in on the kitchen,” Marler said. “Our initial attack crews say that’s where the fire appeared to be focused in the early stages.”

Downriggers aftermathFlames quickly grabbed hold of the ceiling shortly after the first wave of fire fighters arrived at the scene, at about 2:40 a.m. They were forced to evacuate the building only minutes later, as the fire spread rapidly across the ceiling from one end of the building to the other, posing a risk of collapse. (Photo at left contributed by Carole Sue Conran)

Over the next three hours, the inferno devoured the interior of the restaurant while firefighters prevented it from reaching offices of three other business headquartered on the bottom floor. Firefighters were still hosing down numerous hotspots and outbreaks of fire in the ceiling of the split-level Front Street building nearly five hours after the blaze was first reported.

Firefighters from Orcas and Lopez islands, and later from Anacortes, arrived in Friday Harbor to provide backup and support in battling the blaze.

For now, the cause of the fire remains a matter of speculation. But the reality is that it left a summertime crew of roughly 50 Downriggers employees, along with restaurant owner Debbie Rishel, owner of the restaurant for more than 20 years, without jobs, as well as displacing Friday Harbor Marine, San Juan Excursions and San Juan Safaris from their home base.

Makeshift accommodations were made Saturday by the Town of Friday Harbor and the Port of Friday Harbor, owner of fire-charred building, so that three ground-floor businesses could continue operating over the weekend. Town officials allowed the two whale watch companies to set up along the sidewalk near Memorial Park as a base of operations, despite town regulations.

“We felt overall that it was the right thing to do,” said town Administrator Duncan Wilson, who intends to issue temporary permits to authorize use of the sidewalk through the Labor Day weekend, at least.

Several local restaurants have reportedly offered jobs to many former Downriggers workers.

The Port purchased the building in 1994 for just under $1 million. Its ceiling has been either remodel or added onto numerous times over the years. Chief Marler noted the restaurant, whose original construction pre-dates today’s town building standards, operated without a sprinkler system.

Port Director Marilyn O’Connor said the port commissioners will meet Wednesday (4 p.m. at San Juan Island Yacht Club) to discuss options for the future of the building and of the waterfront lot.

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