Official report details massive response to fateful Plaza fire

Mad River Union

ARCATA – The Arcata Fire District’s official report on the Oct. 27 Plaza fire by Arcata Fire offers a detailed look at the response to the mostly subterranean blaze. 

The report, created Nov. 6 by Battalion Chief Sean Campbell, was obtained at a cost of $10 from Arcata Fire.

Though its pages and photos are pasted with “CONTROLLED DOCUMENT” warnings stating that duplication and re-issuance is controlled by law, the department consulted with its attorney and said it could be released to the public. below is a summary; the entire report is posted here. 

Initial response

Arcata firefighters were on scene at another fire incident on Lake Avenue in Arcata when the first call came in at 4:07 p.m. It was reported as a commercial structure fire on the Plaza’s east side, with “heavy fire” coming out a back door.

Arcata Fire has been concerned for years about the Plaza’s antiquated east side structures, many of which lack firewalls, so a full and immediate response was ordered.

Arriving on scene, firefighters set up a command post, learned that the fire was “deep in the building” and asked for Arcata Police assistance in evacuating the structure.

The initial minutes were spent organizing and positioning the assets on scene and requesting more. The nearby Uniontown Shopping Center was used as a staging area for arriving personnel and equipment.

Doors were forced open to get access and ascertain the extent of the smoke and fire. Smoke had penetrated all the east side businesses except the Plaza store at Eighth and G streets, which was protected by a firewall. 

Gas and electricity service to involved buildings was shut off. The fire was located and knocked down relatively quickly, and smoke was vented out of the affected spaces. 

Investigation: the generator did it 

An investigation was later conducted to ascertain the fire’s origin. Along with evaluation of burn patterns and other details, Big Blue’s owner, Jeff Martin-Kunkle was interviewed.

He said that because of PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), which was in progress at the time, he had used a generator to power the restaurant’s refrigerators and freezers and preserve the food.

After seeing some use without incident the previous day and with the PSPS still in progress, Martin-Kunkle returned to the still-powerless Sunday morning and at 9 a.m. to start it up again. With all the fridges and freezers plugged in, he  pointed the generator’s exhaust out the open back door through a metal security gate. 

The generator was positioned about two feet from the stairwell that leads down to the sub-floor area. But over the course of the Sunday, according to investigators, “the vibration caused by the generator running caused it to walk away from the security screen until it came in contact with the wall that leads to the sub-floor space. Once the generator came in contact with the wall, the exhaust ignited the plywood door that sealed the sub-floor space.”

Concludes the report, “This fire is accidental in nature. All other ignition sources have been eliminated.”



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