History in flames: Blaze guts building in downtown Nevada City | TheUnion.com

History in flames: Blaze guts building in downtown Nevada City

Dan BurkhartShortly after 5 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters were still in the early stages of their assault on the blaze that would wreck Friar Tuck's Restaurant & Bar and damaged surrounding buildings in downtown Nevada City.
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Nevada City’s rich history includes a chapter on devastating fires. Another page was written Wednesday morning as flames ravaged a quarter-block section of the town’s historic downtown district.

The fire, its source not yet known, caused more than $3 million of damage as it destroyed a restaurant, a gift and record shop, and the Nevada County Probation Department, including countless volumes of records, on the southwest corner of North Pine and Commercial streets.

No injuries were reported.

A theater suffered heavy smoke and water damage, and numerous businesses shut down for the day because streets were closed and the power was shut off.

“It isn’t the first time Nevada City has burned, but we’re resilient and we’ll rebuild from the ashes, as it were,” Mayor Kerry Arnett said.

More than 100 firefighters and 20 engines came from all over the region, and they stayed most of the day as crews confined the flames to the two-story building’s roughly 21,000 square feet.

Many firefighters were due back today, when an investigation into the fire’s cause resumes. Wednesday night, investigators were waiting to learn if the brick building, cracked and sagging in spots, was sound enough to enter. A city-contracted structural engineer was supposed to provide that answer.

The fire destroyed Friar Tuck’s Restaurant & Bar, the Herb Shop and the Herb Shop Record Store on the first floor. All of the second floor, home to the Probation Department, was gutted. Off Broadstreet theater suffered heavy smoke and water damage.

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Steve Carman said most of the evidence of the blaze collapsed on itself, creating a pile of rubble fire marshals will now have to sift through.

A 911 caller reported the fire at 4:15 a.m., and the first crew from the Nevada City Fire Department arrived four minutes later. A Nevada City police officer was the first to arrive.

Soon, flames were seen shooting from a Probation Department window above Commercial Street. That didn’t necessarily mean the fire started on the second floor, investigators stressed.

“It got ugly early. That’s the way to do it,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter Charlie Jakobs, referring to the mass of hoses and vehicles used to hit the fire early. Early on, four firefighters, all atop ladders, shot water on the flames as smoke rose hundreds of feet.

Jakobs, fire captain specialist for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, handled questions from the throng of media that showed up.

By 6:15 a.m., Friar Tuck’s owners, Greg and Rona Cook, were among the hundreds who watched firefighters battle the flames amid thick smoke. Many documented the incident with cameras and camcorders.

“Thirty years of our life is in there,” Greg Cook said as his wife fought back tears.

Later, Rona said: “We’re going to reopen as soon as possible. We’re going to rebuild as soon as possible. We’ll be back, and all the memories will be back.”

Others, like dishwasher Matt Arnold, stopped by to find their job situations uncertain.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I have no job, no money. I’m messed up, totally,” he said.

He then turned to a friend: “How am I going to make my car payment, man?”

Lovie Bucknell, owner of the record store, home to thousands of vinyl records, pondered her next move.

“The store has totally fueled my soul, and without it, I don’t know what,” she said.

At the theater, where “Angry Housewives” was running, tearful co-owner Jan Kopp was consoled by firefighters who recovered items from the 80-seat venue.

“I’ve had a lot of firefighters come up to me and say they love my theater,” she said. “They love coming to my shows.”

Robert Perez, owner of Citronee restaurant, watched cautiously as he sipped a cup of espresso. His Broad Street establishment was spared, but he prepared for the worst and gathered cookbooks and recipes accumulated during his career. He also shut off the gas.

Other businesses along Broad Street suffered water damage as firefighters doused walls connected to the doomed building, built in 1912.

As for the Probation Department, where records for more than 1,200 adult and juvenile offenders were kept, Chief Probation Officer John Wardell said, officials began the task of deciding where to relocate the office’s 35 or so workers and how to recoup destroyed files.

Many of the files have duplicates in the courthouse, but many were kept on Probation Department computers, and the full extent of the loss wasn’t immediately known, Wardell said.

Later, firefighters removed several metal cabinets filled with archived files, many of which appeared unscathed. Crews worked cautiously, easing the files down a ladder.

The staff, which moved into the building two years ago after a renovation, will be divided between the courthouse, Rood Administrative Center and the Nevada City Veterans Building.

A new office for the county Victim Witness Assistance Center, which shared space with the Probation Department, is also being sought.

With no immediate confirmation as to the fire’s cause, some speculation centered on another fire call to Friar Tuck’s on Monday morning. It was extinguished before firefighters arrived and turned out to be smoldering rags in a laundry hamper, according to the Cooks and CDF.

Jakobs said the incident is unrelated.

Also, on Monday and Tuesday mornings, some Probation Department employees reportedly asked various shop owners if they had smelled smoke, according to Niel Locke and John Parent, owners of Java John’s on Broad Street.

“They were looking for anything, because they could smell smoke – or so they said,” said Locke, who couldn’t help them.

“Roasting coffee beans every day, you don’t smell anything,” he said.

Wardell said he hadn’t heard such a report.

A Friar Tuck’s customer who said he was at the restaurant Tuesday night claimed smelling smoke around 10:30 p.m.

“Like you struck a match, like burning sulfur,” said Bill Roach of Lake of the Pines. “And it wasn’t to a choking level. It was just enough that you could smell it. It wasn’t enough to stop you from breathing or having a drink.”

Greg Cook said it might have been related to the smoldering rags, and fire investigators emphasized they have reached no conclusions.

Wednesday’s blaze was the latest in a long string dating back to the mid-19th century.

City Councilman Steve Cottrell, versed in city history, said the city had to rebuild after fires in 1851, 1856 and 1863. The first of those, when the city was built of wood and canvas, was the most devastating.

“They were called the Three Great Fires of Nevada City,” he said.

In 1961, the Probation Department space was struck by fire when it was occupied by the Nevada City Elks Lodge, according to Jakobs.

On Wednesday, 16 fire departments or protection districts responded, according to a CDF dispatcher.

They were Nevada City, 49er, Nevada County Consolidated, Grass Valley, Ophir Hill, Peardale-Chicago Park, North San Juan, Penn Valley, Rough and Ready, Higgins, Placer County Consolidated, Auburn, Colfax, Marysville, Newcastle and Placer Hills.

Nevada City police, the Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol provided traffic and crowd control.

Some of those crews covered at other stations in case other emergencies arose.

So much water was being drained from Nevada City’s fire hydrants that the city tied into the Nevada Irrigation District’s treated water system and used 1,000 gallons per minute of NID water.

“There was something like 10 (fire) hoses going. There was some concern that they were using so much water, we might draw down our tanks,” said Jim Wofford, a Nevada City Department of Public Works employee.

“But I don’t think that was a problem,” Wofford said. City officials were mainly concerned about emptying the city’s storage tank on Sugarloaf Hill, he said.

The tank usually holds water 24 feet deep, but Wofford thought the water level dropped only 2 feet.

NID officials could only say the city used 1,000 gallons per minute; they hadn’t yet tallied up the total amount of NID water used to fight the fire.

“We were very happy to provide the city with … water,” said NID General Manager Jim Chatigny.

Asked if NID would charge for the water, Chatigny said no.

“There’s no bill for fire water. It’s one of the freebies,” he said.

NID can provide water to Nevada City and Grass Valley in case of emergency, and the cities also could provide water to NID, Chatigny said.

The city tapped into NID’s system via a fire truck, which pumped water from an NID hydrant on Zion Street, said NID Operations Manager Terry Mayfield.

– Kerana Todorov and Tim Omarzu contributed to this story.

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