News

San Juan: Fire destroys old building across the street from high school

Top photo, a building behind the former Virgil Frits house is fully engulfed in flames this morning. Second photo, firefighters shoot water into the attic after the roof reignited. Third photo, firefighters, covered with foam, await the next attack. Fourth photo, students watch from the sidewalk in front of Friday Harbor High School.    - Top photo: Rick Galer All others: Richard Walker
Top photo, a building behind the former Virgil Frits house is fully engulfed in flames this morning. Second photo, firefighters shoot water into the attic after the roof reignited. Third photo, firefighters, covered with foam, await the next attack. Fourth photo, students watch from the sidewalk in front of Friday Harbor High School.
— image credit: Top photo: Rick Galer All others: Richard Walker

A fire destroyed an old laundry/storeroom/garage behind the former Virgil Frits house, across from the courthouse, this morning.

There were no reported injuries.

The property is owned by the county for future expansion of county administration offices. The building, like the house, was slated to be destroyed if a taker didn't relocate it.

But this fire, while perhaps convenient, was not planned.

Shortly before 9 a.m., Friday Harbor Fire Department Training Officer Frank Chaffee was walking out of the high school when he saw smoke. "I thought, wait, there's no open burning. Then — jeez!"

Bud Sears, county building and grounds manager, said the building was vacant and locked, and had no electricity. He said the fire marshal told him the door was ajar.

Twenty firefighters from Friday Harbor and San Juan Island fire departments went to the scene, according to Alan Roochvarg, San Juan Island Fire Department public information officer.

The fire was stubborn. Firefighters fought the fire from outside, spraying foam and water on the building only to see flames rise up again. The fire was fully extinguished until about 9:50 a.m.

Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long said firefighters stayed outside of the building because of the risk of collapse. The building's wood was "dried out and very old," Long said. That and the open attic made for a hot fire — hot enough that county administrative assistant Debbie Emery could feel heat in her office about 50 yards away.

The cause of the fire was not known this morning; it is under investigation by the county fire marshal. But Long believes the fire started in the back of the building, because it seemed to sustain the most damage.

Long said the fire is a small-scale example of what could happen on a large scale elsewhere in downtown, which boasts many wooden buildings dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, he and Sandy Strehlou, historic preservation officer for the Town of Friday Harbor, are exploring incentives for businesses that make fire-safety improvements.

"It's not just about historic preservation, it's about the economic security of the town," she said. "There have been more significant fires in Friday Harbor than most people realize. The fact that the town is still standing is a miracle."

Strehlou said the building's fate seems to be a harbinger of what's to come for the Frits house. She's tried for three years to find someone to relocate the house. Today, she said the effort to save the house is over.

An article in Cottage Living magazine generated about 90 inquiries. Of those, seven interested parties crunched the numbers and found relocating and restoring the house would be cost -prohibitive.

"Once you restore a building like that, it's the jewel of the community," she said. "It's a labor of love."

Nourdine Jensen inherited the house from his uncle, Virgil Frits, who was editor and publisher of the Journal from 1907-1958 and a long-time town clerk. Frits bought the house in 1927 or 1928.

Under Jensen's ownership, the house was a rental; the last tenant was Harbor Pawn Shop. He then sold the house to the county.

Jensen said his uncle used the building behind the house for a laundry and storeroom. It had a wood stove for heating water. A woodshed was attached to the back. There was a one-car garage attached on the side.

Jensen, who was born in 1914, doesn't consider his uncle's old house to be "old." "It was fairly new when I was going to school," he said. "My house on First Street is older; it was built in 1908 or 1909."

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