The Soldotna Dairy Queen caught fire early Wednesday morning, causing significant damage to both the popular ice cream stop and the Alaska Fudge & Gifts shop next door.
Dairy Queen's rear roof eventually collapsed due to extensive structural damage caused by the fire, while the rest of the store suffered severe heat and smoke damage, prompting co-owner Val Ischi to call the building "a total loss."
Nobody was inside the building at the time of the fire.
A passing cab driver working the graveyard shift observed smoke emanating from the building around three o'clock in the morning and called 911. Central Emergency Services and the Soldotna Police Department responded to make a cursory evaluation of the situation.
"When we got on-scene, we were looking through the windows," said Deputy Fire Marshal Brad Nelson. "There was charred smoke throughout the entire interior, but no visible flames. We did a walk-around and saw a bunch of smoke coming off the back end, coming out from the eves."
From that point, CES personnel got the fire engines ready and developed a plan of attack.
When they got inside, the firefighters saw a lot of heavy fire activity in the roof area. It turned out the building, which houses both the Dairy Queen and Alaska Fudge & Gifts, had two roofs, with the newer one built directly over the older, original one.
"The fire got in between those two areas, which made it extremely difficult to fight," Nelson said. "One, getting access to it, and two, it had a bunch of void spaces to keep running and hiding from us."
Nelson referred to this as "the chasing game": every time the crew managed to put out one fire, another one would pop up 20 feet away on some other part of the roof. At one point the roof caved in, hindering firefighting capabilities further.
After several hours, the fire was finally under control, and completely extinguished by 9 a.m.
By Wednesday afternoon, firefighters were still traversing the remaining section of roofing, spraying thick white foam over hot spots of rubber, urethane, and other insulation materials that could potentially smolder and reignite.
Co-owners Val and Pete Ischi were on-scene at 4 a.m. to watch flames leap from their business. Val Ischi also co-owns Alaska Fudge & Gifts with her two children and sister.
"We're in shock," Val Ischi said. "We're just trying to kind of go through the motions of what we absolutely have to do. Once we know what we're going to do, we'll let everybody else know."
Nelson said that while the incident is still under investigation, there is nothing pointing to arson at this time. The only thing they really know, he said, is that the fire started somewhere in the roof area.
"For fire investigations, we always start off with the worst-case scenario and work our way backward," he said, "because it's easier to go ugly early and then scale back."
Still, a full-fledged investigation is under way. CES recovered surveillance footage from the Dairy Queen security system, but Nelson concluded there was nothing suspicious caught on the tapes.
"We're thinking it was just an accident of some sort," said Val Ischi. "I have nothing to believe that it was intentional."
The last firefighter left the scene at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, while the owners worked to board up the blackened building.
An insurance investigation team will join up with CES in a couple of days to resume further investigation, Nelson said.