Federal investigators join probe of Forks fire
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Lonnie Archibald/for Peninsula Daily News
Forks City Attorney Rod Fleck looks over the fire scene with insurance representative Roger Neal.

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

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FORKS — Federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators are expected to begin today to sift through the charred rubble of the former International Order of Odd Fellows hall in the heart of downtown.

Their goal, Clallam County Fire District No. 1 Chief Phil Arbeiter said Tuesday, is to determine the cause of an early Monday blaze that destroyed the historic building and a former Twilight-series-themed store next door that was once the site of a decades-old pharmacy.

The fire, which was reported at 3:45 a.m. Monday and was under control by about 6 a.m., began in the Odd Fellows hall, Arbeiter said Tuesday.

Arbeiter said four ATF agents were scheduled to arrive late Tuesday afternoon and set up their equipment before beginning their on-site inspection this morning and finishing it this afternoon.

They will tiptoe through the remains of the IOOF hall at 35 N. Forks Ave. and a single-story building at 61 N. Forks Ave. that had been home to the Dazzled by Twilight souvenir store, which over nine decades also was occupied by Olympic Pharmacy and, more recently, Fern Gallery.

“They are there to determine what the actual cause was, and that includes everything, to rule out all possibilities at what could have started it,” Arbeiter said.

“Does it narrow it down to arson? Does it narrow it down to accidental? They look at everything.”

Arbeiter said investigators had determined the fire's point of origin, but he would not comment on its exact location or the factors that led him to seek the help of the ATF.

He said a combination of interviews conducted by investigators and evidence led him to the conclusion that the ATF should be called in.

“I don't feel comfortable saying it was suspicious or not suspicious,” Arbeiter said. “At least it takes that level of doubt or whatever out of the equation.”

Clallam County Public Utility District shut off power to 1,335 customers for four hours as a precaution, and Quillayute Valley School District was closed for the day.

The city-owned IOOF building was insured for $3.7 million, Mayor Bryon Monohon said Tuesday.

Monohon said fire investigators had determined that the fire did not appear to originate at the electrical blocks where power comes into the building.

“That's a logical place that something could have happened,” he said.

“Anytime you have a situation like this that there shouldn't be any reason something burned, you look at things,” Monohon said.

About 50 years ago, an addition was built onto the IOOF building with a cinder block wall that contained the fire and protected a home behind it, Monohon said.

If the fire had occurred in late September, when the weather was drier, “we'd have lost major chunks of downtown,” Monohon said.

The souvenir store, which was not occupied, and the land it was on were valued at $201,576, according to the Clallam County Assessor's Office.

The second floor of the IOOF building was occupied by the Rainforest Art Center, which leased the entire structure from the city for $1 a year, Art Center spokesman Michael Gurling said Tuesday.

Dedicated in 1925, it included a ballroom that doubled as a theater and seated 150 people, Gurling said.

About 15 members of the group will meet Saturday to discuss the Art Center's future, Gurling added.

“The whole thing is like a bad dream,” he said.

The 900-square-foot Tienda Latina, a Latino grocery store that was on the first floor of the building, also was destroyed in the blaze.

The owner of the business, who rented the store from the Rainforest Art Center, could not be reached for comment.

Entrepreneur Manuel Cruz had the only establishment in Forks devoted to Latino goods, said Kevin Favorite, the owner of Forks Avenue Real Estate, which is the Rainforest Art Center's property manager.

A new, $35,000 roof was recently put on the building, Gurling said.

A new heating-ventilation-cooling system also was installed a few months ago.

It was funded with $29,000 that had been bequeathed to the art center and $3,000 raised by the facility, Gurling said.

Gurling said the art center has up to $25,000 in insurance to cover personal items that include about a dozen looms and spinning wheels and also has $33,000 in insurance to cover the replacement costs of art center items, he said.

Gurling estimated that the value of set materials, costumes and other theater-related items was between $25,000 and $30,000.

That doesn't include a lighting system funded in part with a $10,000 grant from the Paul Allen Foundation, Gurling said.

“We were overjoyed to have this space,” he said, adding that the only other theater venue in town was at Forks High School, where the Rainforest Players have to compete with public school events.

The Olympic Council of the Arts and the Rainforest Players joined to form the Rainforest Art Center in 1997.

The organization began leasing the building from the city in 1997 for $1 a year, agreeing to renovate the building “and bring it back to life,” Gurling said.

The walls were insulated and thermopane windows installed, Gurling said.

The restrooms also were made disabled-accessible, and an elevator was added.

The art center renewed the lease in the mid-2000s, Gurling said.

The organization took on the task of renovating the building — a 15-year-process until Monday — for the benefit of the community, he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Monohon called the place “a major core, the heart” of that community.

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Managing Editor/News Leah Leach contributed to this article.

Last modified: October 30. 2012 6:02PM
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