Investigators: rodent responsible for Downriggers fire

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 file photo

With the receipt of the report on the cause of the fire that destroyed Downriggers restaurant, Port of Friday Harbor Executive Director Marilyn O'Conner is ready to move on to the planning phase to repair or replace the venerable Spring Street Landing building on the waterfront.

The report by Unified Investigations & Sciences described the likely scenario: "A rodent had chewed through electrical conductors within the wall space, causing the exposed bare hot conductor to come in contact with the neutral or ground conductor. Heat from the arcing conductors ignited localized combustible material, with high surface to mass ratio, such as porous wood materials, shredded PVC wiring insulation, and other rodent debris."

The fire started in the wall between the kitchen and the food pick-up area. Although the report notes that the restaurant had installed wiring in the area for a commercial toaster ("conductor 5"), apparently without a permit, the report suggests the fire started in another wire in the wall, identified as "conductor 6", which exhibited evidence of arcing in the area of a rat's nest and chewed-on insulation. The report does not specify what conductor 6 was connected to, or when it was installed.

Four waterfront businesses were displaced after fire swept through Downriggers restaurant in the early morning hours of Aug. 17, leaving a summertime crew of roughly 50 restaurant workers temporarily without a job, and three businesses based on the ground floor of the port-owned building, Friday Harbor Marine, San Juan Excursions and San Juan Safaris, without a home. Owners of those businesses, and others, have pressed the Port Commission for assurances that it will rebuild and give priority to the displaced tenants in a newly constructed building.

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

Commissioner Greg Hertel said he thought the report would clear the way for starting the rebuilding process.

"We'll have a decision from our insurer on repairing or rebuilding in a couple of weeks," Hertel said. "We've received 'ballpark estimates' that it might cost more to repair than rebuild."

The port is seeking qualifications for architects and engineers to design the new building, and for engineers to consult on bulkhead replacement options.

No claims for damages have been made against the port or its insurer, said O'Conner, who points out that the lease agreements with the four building occupants limit claims for damages against the port.

Hertel echoed O'Conner's "let's look forward" attitude. At a special meeting of the port commission Sept. 24, the commission approved a resolution stating, "The Port intends to give the first opportunity to enter into new leases for space in the repaired/rebuilt Building to the Tenants."


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