Origin confirmed as fire probe continues

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER) Fire officials and demolition crews examine the ruins of 202 North First Avenue on Friday.

SANDPOINT — Authorities have confirmed the point of origin of a fire that reduced two buildings at the corner of North First Avenue and Bridge Street to ruins on Feb. 11.

The Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office and a team of private investigators resumed the investigation into the structure fire on Friday, which forced a partial closure of First Avenue.

The fire has been ruled accidental and the cause remains undetermined, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Jason Blubaum. The investigation began on Thursday.

Investigators concluded the fire started in the basement of 204 North First, between the lower level ceiling and the first-level floor, the fire marshal’s office said in a statement released by the city of Sandpoint. The point of origin is believed to be at the wall between Sandpoint Chocolate Bear and Ol Red’s Pub.

“As we cleared the debris in the basement of 202, the point of origin became clear when we found the glass door to Ol Red’s intact. That became a real game changer,” Blubaum said in the statement.

Blubaum added that the location is the same area where a Selkirk Fire Rescue & EMS firefighter who was on the first level reported that his hand penetrated the floor.

“I would like to again reiterate that the fire department did an excellent job and deserves recognition for their efforts,” Blubaum said.

There were no injuries as a result of the fire, although it displaced five active businesses and caused an estimated $4 million in damages.

The building at 202 was home to Headlines Salon, the Hound Downtown and Ol Red’s, which was not in operation at the time of the blaze. The building at 204/6 North First was occupied by China Kitchen, Sandpoint Chocolate Bear and Sandpoint Tattoo.

Grace Sandpoint Christian Church, located at 208 North First sustained heavy fire and smoke damage, according to the city.

Utara Brewing Co. is using proceeds from its Bridge Street IPA to aid the sidelined employees of the displaced businesses.

The site at 202 teemed on Friday with workers in fluorescent safety vests and hardhats, in addition to a few fire officials in turnout gear. A demolition contractor used an excavator open the walls and supports in the building so debris could be sifted.

The city’s forensic engineer was on the scene Friday to assess damage to the public right of way.

The work also drew a steady trickle of onlookers who peered through cyclone fencing ringing the site as investigators pored over the debris.

The investigation concluded at approximately 4 p.m. as investigators reached the wall between 202 and 204 North First. City officials said authorization to enter 204 North First has not been granted at this point.

Heavy equipment will remain at the site through Monday, when contractors are slated to haul away debris extracted from the building at 202.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad said the city remains committed to returning downtown to normal as quickly as possible and is working with all parties to expedite the next steps in the investigation.

The city will push the fencing back on Monday to open up as much of the drive lanes on Bridge and First as possible.

The sidewalks along affected portions of First and Bridge will remain closed for the time being, the city said.

The city is sourcing vinyl panels with wraps of historical photos of the area. They are slated for installation in the coming weeks, a project that’s being funded by a $7,500 grant from the BNSF Foundation.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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