Riverside Fire Authority Chief Jim Walkoski said that firefighters battling the Saturday furniture store blaze reduced the heat on themselves as best they could by keeping themselves as low to the ground as possible. / Photo by Richard LaLonde
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
While the fire department has finished its part of the investigation into the cause of the weekend’s three-alarm fire at a Centralia furniture business, they will now wait for insurance company investigators to conduct tests on various machines from inside the building to look for a possible ignition source.
Riverside Fire Authority Chief Jim Walkowski said he estimated the loss at Just Wood Furniture at about $2 million.
They believe the area of origin was somewhere in the back of the 13,000 square-foot structure, Walkowski said today.
Just Wood – owned by Tom Nelson – manufactured, repaired and sold retail at the business on Harrison Avenue near Yew Street, according to the fire chief. It was a complete loss, as was separate business, Cascade Tax Service which was located inside the building.
“Fires like these take weeks, if not months before we get answers,” Walkowski said.
Firefighters were dispatched at 3:26 a.m. on Saturday after a police officer responded to a burglar alarm there, Walkowski said. The chief said not to read much into that, as fire activity can set off motion detectors.
It took two hours to get the blaze under control and until about 8 o’clock in the morning before it was fully extinguished, according to the chief.
Forty firefighters from six departments battled to keep it contained and prevent it from burning down a convenience store on one side, an accounting office on the other and a small house in the back, Walkowski said as he finished up reports today.
Besides the wood furniture, the business with an adjoining two-story shop contained wood, sawdust, solvents, lacquers and numerous propane cylinders.
“All very, very combustible,” Walkowski said. “There was a huge fire load inside that building.”
When firefighters pulled up, the roof had collapsed and flames had already ignited trees and the side of the Food Mart next door. They didn’t go inside the burning building, according to Walkowski.
“At the height of the firefight, we were pumping 8,000 gallons of water per minute; that is significant,” Walkowski said, noting one ladder truck can put out 1,000 gallons per minute. The city turned on additional pumps and valves to make that possible, he said.
They had police officers chasing down flying embers and nearly had to relocate the command post which was 60 to 80 feet away in a small parking lot across Harrison, the chief said.
“You couldn’t even put your hand on the side of the command vehicle, it was so hot,” Walkowski said.
Personnel and apparatus from departments in Chehalis, Napavine, Oakville and the city of Olympia assisted in fighting the fire. One firefighter was treated for an ankle injury.
The last three-alarm fire in Centralia was four years ago when half of Oakview Elementary School in the north end of town was destroyed by runaway fireworks.
Late Saturday afternoon, Harrison Avenue was reopened and a fence surrounded the blackened remains of the fire. A bulldozer-type machine was parked inside, and nearby was a Just Wood truck and trailer which were spared. File cabinets from the tax business had also been rescued, according to Chief Walkowski.
Centralia resident Jaspal Mohan said she had arrived about 6 a.m. that morning to open Centralia Food Mart, after closing about 11:30 p.m. the night before.
“I was worried, I saw flashing lights, from Mellen Street,” Mohan said.
She found her front door was open after firefighters broke into her convenience store to check in the attic for fire. There was none, but one exterior wall was left charred and an outside corner had burned.
Also Saturday afternoon, Richard LaLonde and a neighbor were pruning and removing bushes from in between their houses, a task prompted by the overnight experience.
The Rochester Primary School teacher said thankfully the wind was carrying embers the other way, because the vacant house in front and very close to theirs on Harrison Avenue is surrounded by tall, dry grass.
LaLonde and his wife were asleep when their children woke them about 3:30 a.m. They were among the crowd who watched for hours.
Cindy LaLonde said it seemed only minutes that the flames moved from the back of the building to the front.
“It all went up, and it went up fast,” Richard LaLonde said.
To view several photos and read the original Saturday news story about the fire at Just Wood Furniture click here.