The Heritage Building Fire: A Year Later

Just before 3PM on December 26, 2017, a fire that began in or around a clothes dryer gutted the historic Heritage Building. The fire displaced residents from the Heritage apartments and destroyed multiple businesses.  It also changed the face of Auburn forever. VRFA investigators deemed the fire to be accidental in nature. 

December 26, 2017

A total of 33 fire apparatus and 82 fire personnel responded to the Heritage Building Fire.  Agencies from Renton, Tukwila, So King County, Maple Valley, Kent, and East Pierce County assisted VRFA in battling the inferno.

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Auburn’s Main Street From Christmas Eve 2017 to Christmas Eve 2018 | Photos by Elizabeth Miller for the Auburn Examiner

All occupants of the Heritage Apartments and all businesses were safely evacuated.  There were no injuries beyond several patients treated on scene for smoke inhalation.  One dog perished in the fire.

Built in 1921, the Heritage Building was one of Auburn’s oldest buildings.  It was home to 39 residents living in 35 apartments.  Nearly all contents of the Heritage Apartments were a total loss.

“It’s in many ways hard to believe it’s been a year since the devastating fire that displaced over 30 individuals from their homes,” said Auburn Mayor, Nancy Backus. “Most of them lost everything they owned, and what was left was visible from the southern side of the building for many months as investigators completed their work and insurance determined what their payout would be.”

One story Backus has been proud to share throughout the year is of a returned ring. “One young man only wanted to retrieve his grandfather’s ring.  He told one of the VRFA investigators exactly where it was, in the hopes they could find it for him. I held out absolutely no hope (but didn’t verbalize it), because of the amount and force of water that was sprayed on that building.  But it was found and returned!”

Support From The Community

The NW Red Cross, Auburn Food Bank, and City of Auburn worked together to help coordinate the tremendous outpouring of support from the community.  One community member who quickly jumped to act was Michelle Rylands. “When I first saw the fire on the news, I thought they are going to need everything. Being a PTA leader in Auburn, there have been occasions we put out the call for help like the giving tree and food drives to help those less fortunate in our community.  Using Facebook, I put out the same type of call for donations for those affected by the Heritage Building Fire. I asked for anything they may need to rebuild their lives,” said Rylands.

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Donation sorting at Auburn Mountainview High School Photos Courtesy: Chris Williams & Tracy Case Arnold

Rylands described the community spirit she witnessed in the fire’s aftermath. “I told people to put the donations on their front porch, and I would drive around and pick it up. I was not prepared for the outpouring that we received. It took three days, and I delivered over 250 bags of items to the Auburn Food Bank. Auburn is an amazing place, and we always rise up to help those in need!”

The community outreach was so much it overwhelmed the Auburn Food Bank.  The food bank put out a request for donations to halt, allowing for the donations to be sorted and processed. “The Auburn Food Bank took responsibility for collecting the clothing, and the response was overwhelming! We had to utilize the gymnasium space from both Northwest Family Church and Auburn Mountainview High School to store the donations. Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at Cascade Middle School, and as I sat with the residents listening to their stories, food donations just kept coming,” said Backus.

Businesses Impacted

Street level storefronts housed businesses frequented by Auburn residents and visitors.  Among them were Avatars Virtual Reality Arcade, Cindy Hensen with Farmer’s Insurance, G & E Spa, Henry’s Homeplate Pub, Hidden Entity Tattoo & Body PiercingPho Thang Long restaurant, Top Nails, and U-Float Spa.

Farmers Insurance, G&E Spa, Hidden Entity Tattoo and Body Piercing, and Top Nails are all welcoming customers in their new locations. “I’ve been encouraged by the fortitude of the business owners who have relocated in the heart of our downtown, and for those who continue to work towards rebuilding,” shared Backus.

Farmers Insurance                                                    G&E Spa
815 Harvey Rd NE                                                         226 1st St NE
Auburn, WA 98002                                                       Auburn, WA 98002
(253) 735-9217                                                              (253) 833-8218

Hidden Entity Tattoo and Body Piercing          Top Nails
121 E Main St                                                                  204 E Main St
Auburn, WA 98002                                                       Auburn, WA 98002
(253) 249-7727                                                              (253) 329-2900

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Hidden Entity Tattoo & Body Piercing Crew | Courtesy Photo

Situated just across the street, Hidden Entity Tattoo and Body Piercing reopened only a month after the fire.  Not even a block up Main Street, Top Nails cut the ribbon for their new spa on April 29th.  Just around the corner on 1st Ave and Auburn Way N, across from Wells Fargo, the G&E Spa welcomed clients back in early September.

Farmers Insurance was able to continue serving their clients during the aftermath of the fire.  From the ashes of the fire, came a new client, “Julie and I met in the parking lot after a fire had destroyed the Farmers business, along with half the city block in Auburn.  Helping her with loading client paperwork, I asked for her business card.  I finally connected with Julie and began my personal home and auto bid from Farmers,” said Stephanie K. on the Farmers’ website, “Julie Rocks!” she exclaimed.

The Rainbow Café was closed only temporarily, and once reopened was flooded with customers wanting to show their love and support.

The Home Plate Pub

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The Burned-Out Heritage Building | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Miller

One of the businesses that haven’t yet reopened is the Home Plate Pub.  Auburn residents will be happy to know that Henry Dehoog, owner of the Home Plate Pub, is hopeful to reopen in Auburn.  To reopen, he wants to find the best location.

Reopening a restaurant is harder than some of the other businesses lost.  The location needs to have plumbing, suitable parking, and if Dehoog gets his wish, outdoor seating.  Most importantly, it needs to be in a good location.  Dehoog doesn’t want to be hidden away in an obscure, or industrial area. Ideally, the Home Plate Pub will return to a site in, or near, downtown.

Dehoog isn’t putting an opening timeline or date goal out there; because he’s not rushing it.  He is hopeful for 2019 and that the year starts out better than 2018 did.

Auburn U-Float

The Auburn U-Float is another business that sadly has not yet returned.  Opened in January of 2014, owner Philip McGraw describes U-Float as “a relaxing space for healing the body and mind through float therapy and massage.”

u-float therapy
Inside the U-Float Spa | Courtesy Photo

The fire was a surreal experience for McGraw.  When evacuations began, he thought it was a minor kitchen fire in an apartment upstairs.  “The situation became more severe than anyone could have imagined. We had two clients floating during the fire that had their experiences abruptly ended only to emerge back into a world in which the building they were relaxing in was on fire, and [then they were] shuffled out into the cold. That had to be a difficult transition,” said McGraw.

Like most of the Heritage Building business owners, 2018 has been difficult for McGraw. “To have something you’ve worked towards for five years taken away in an instant is quite a shock. It feels like the ground being taken out from under you,” shared McGraw.

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Businesses Lost in the Heritage Building Fire | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Miller

Plans to reopen have been put on hold at this time as the business has been unable to recover losses from the fire. “[Many challenges] remain from this incident that are creating barriers for reopening right away.  I am currently focused on recovering said losses in hopes to be treated fairly and just from an otherwise devastating incident that was no fault of ours,” said McGraw.

McGraw currently works in Tacoma at Uncharted Waters. U-Float’s massage therapist, Michaelle Batson, was able to open back up across the street at Turning Point Training Studio.  “My heart goes out to our neighbors upstairs and next door who lost nearly everything they had. Thankfully no one was hurt,” said McGraw.

The Ghost of a Building

When demolition began of the burned-out building, many residents were relieved.  But the emptiness of Heritage Building still looms on Main Street.  Chain link fences remain around the border of what once was.  And the question of what’s next rests quietly in the minds of all who pass by.

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The remains of the Heritage Building being demolished | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Final debris clean-up, the third phase of demolition, is expected to wrap up in January.  The demolition has been a complex process, with many moving parts.  To assist in the continued movement of the site’s clean up, the property has had a code enforcement action for close to a year.  Part of this action requires conceptual site designs by January 31, 2019.

Melina Lin purchased the property several years ago and still owns it today.  The city is not currently aware of interest from other parties to purchase the property.  However, that could change any day.

Turning Concepts Into Construction

An architectural and engineering firm hired by Lin has been sharing different concepts with the city to this point.  These concepts confirm the building will be mixed-use retail and residential.  Current plans indicate the new building will not maintain the same aesthetic of the original Heritage building.

According to the enforcement action, all permits must be obtained in 2019 and the property is it to be rebuilt in 2020.  It is unexpected that firm permit plans will be submitted prior to January 31st.  To rebuild the previous nonconforming building, a permit must be obtained within a year of the fire.  It is likely an extension of the non-conforming requirements would be granted should the work continue toward the rebuild.

“Our City is resilient, and in the next few months, there will be new buildings coming out of the ground. [I’m] not sure if that will include the Heritage site, but I know that eventually, it will bear something worthy of our people and place,” said Backus.

Learning From Loss

The Heritage Building Fire reminded us that a tragedy can happen at any moment.  So take time to appreciate life.  Always kiss your loved ones goodbye and tell them you love them, including your pets!  Smile more, say hello to strangers, take the time to stop into that shop you’ve wondered about, get that tattoo you’ve been considering, treat yourself to a massage, thank your cashier and tip your wait staff well. I heart auburn, heart auburn, mayor backus, auburn washington, auburn wa, state of the city

Auburn has so much to offer, downtown and beyond. Until new construction begins, support those that have re-opened and that remain staples in Auburn.  Remember to support small business and buy local.  These businesses are the Top Nails, Home Plate Pub, G&E Spa, Farmers Insurance, Hidden Entity and U-Floats of our community.

 

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