Federal ATF asked to investigate cause of Twisp River Pub fire
By Ann McCreary
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been asked to assist in the investigation of a fire that caused extensive damage to the Twisp River Pub early Monday morning (Feb. 29).
Brian Brett, a fire investigator from Douglas County, conducted an initial investigation of the fire Monday morning and called ATF Monday afternoon to request assistance after finding “possible evidence of arson,” said Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow.
Budrow said he could not provide further details about possible evidence indicating the fire was deliberately set.
Law enforcement officials who arrived at the scene early Monday “had some inkling things were not right” after talking with fire chiefs, Budrow said. Brett, fire marshal with Douglas County Fire District 2 in Wenatchee, was subsequently called to investigate, Budrow said.
Brett requested ATF’s participation in the investigation for “that extra knowledge” the federal agency could provide, Budrow said.
As of press time on Tuesday (March 2), local fire and law enforcement officials were waiting for a response from ATF regarding the requested assistance.
“It’s a matter of [ATF] reviewing it and seeing if its something they can take on,” said Cody Acord, District 6 interim fire chief.
The fire at the pub was reported about 2:30 a.m. Monday and was battled by 25 firefighters from the Methow Valley’s Okanogan County Fire District 6, and 10 firefighters from Douglas-Okanogan Fire District 15 out of Pateros and Brewster.
“There were two explosions after we arrived,” said Acord. “There were some pretty good explosions when the fire started that people could see from across the [Twisp] river,” he said. It was not clear whether the explosions might have been caused by propane tanks in the building, he said.
The fire was under control and firefighters were mopping up by about 6 a.m., Acord said.
The street in front of the pub was blocked off and yellow tape was strung around the structure Monday afternoon as the investigation of the fire was continuing.
Entries to the burned portion of the pub were sealed with plywood and the damaged roof was shored up by Monday evening, and the building was being guarded by police “24/7” to keep it secure, Budrow said.
Pub owner Aaron Studen said most of the damage was in the rear of the building, including his office and a storage area for catering equipment. He lost his computers, records and other documents, Studen said.
As he surveyed the damage from the street Monday afternoon, a weary-looking Studen said, “I’ve been through this before.” He was referring to a fire at the first pub he opened in 1998 at a former creamery building on Second Avenue, which was destroyed by fire in 2001. He subsequently rebuilt the pub at its current location on the corner of Twisp Avenue and Highway 20.
Studen estimated the total damage at “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Most of the pub’s brewing equipment was undamaged, he said, because it is made of stainless steel. The brewery and kitchen escaped extensive damage, although the refrigeration unit was destroyed, but there is smoke damage throughout the building including the dining area, Studen said.
There was about $10,000 worth of beer in kegs and tanks in the building, Studen said. He wasn’t sure how much of it would be salvageable.
The pub had been closed in November and December for kitchen remodeling including installation of a new floor and dishwasher, Studen said. The pub has been for sale for about three years, he said.
Studen said Monday he was in contact with his insurance company but that it was “too early” to know what will be possible in terms of reopening the business, which had 25 employees, and employs up to 35 people during the summer tourist season.
Employees Leland Swaner and Kaydi Coulter were at the scene Monday morning. Swaner, a cook at the pub, said a car that was destroyed by the fire was his, and he had only owned it for a couple of weeks.
Swaner noted that similar jobs are hard to come by locally. “We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do to pay the bills,” he said.
All four of the District 6 stations — Carlton, Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama — responded to the fire, Acord said. “The fire was coming out the windows when we arrived,” Acord said.
Two teams of firefighters worked inside the burning building to contain the fire to the area at the back of the building where it started, Acord said. Each team consists of two to three people, he said.
“For a commercial building this size, these guys did an excellent job containing the fire,” he said.
While the fire was mostly contained at the back of the pub, “smoke damage is extensive” throughout the building, Acord said.
Acord, who took over as interim fire chief of District 6 in January when longtime chief Don Waller took a two-year paid leave, said he was the commanding officer at the scene. Waller responded to the fire as part of the terms of his leave, and worked “like other division chiefs” under the interim chief, Acord said.
At a Fire District 6 commission meeting last week, some citizens wondered whether the leave arrangement with Waller would cause confusion about who would take charge at fire scenes.
“We had talked to firefighters at the first meeting in January so they knew where the chain of command was and how things would work,” Acord said.
District 6 has about 35 active volunteers, Acord said. About 20 District 6 volunteer firefighters were on the scene along with the five paid chiefs, assisted by the District 15 firefighters.
Budrow said the pub closed at 10 p.m. Sunday night. The fire appears to have started inside the building “because of how little burned on the exterior compared to the interior,” he said.
Acord said an investigation into the cause of a fire is standard in any fires in commercial buildings or where there is significant financial loss.
The fire melted fiber optic cables strung on poles next to the pub, interrupting service to 55 wireless customers and five fiber optic customers in the vicinity, including the Family Health Centers medical clinic and North Cascades Bank. The Okanogan Public Utility District completed repairs about 4:30 p.m., said John Grubich, general manager.
Electric lines to the pub burned, but no other electrical service was affected, Grubich said.
The Twisp River Suites hotel west of the pub was evacuated for a time and Highway 20 was closed briefly while the fire was being fought.