Abandoned Sterling fish plant burns to ground

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Flames were shooting 100 feet in the air as Central Emergency Services arrived at a Monday night fire, which is being investigated as "suspicious."

Destroyed in the Sterling blaze was a 100 by 100-foot abandoned fish processing plant on the Sterling Highway most recently used for the manufacture of prefabricated log homes.

Because of what was described as a huge pile of sawdust inside the building, firefighters poured water on the fire from about 10 p.m. until 5:30 Tuesday morning before declaring it out.

No injuries were reported except that one fire fighter stepped on a nail outside the burning building.

"It's under investigation as a suspicious fire," said CES Fire Marshal Gary Hale on Tuesday. "It's not the first time someone tried to set the building on fire."

He said CES was called to the same location "a couple months ago" and found a line of sawdust saturated in diesel fuel leading to a larger pile of sawdust.

"Because the weather was so wet, it never got going," Hale said.

The state fire marshal's office is leading the investigation into Monday night's blaze, he said.

Assistant Fire Chief Gordon Orth said the report of the fire came in just before 10 p.m. and when the first fire trucks arrived, they found the building fully involved.

He said the building, which has not been used in recent months, was described by the Kenai Peninsula Borough assessor's office as a decaying, abandoned building with an assessed value of zero.

The property is owned by Sam and Joyce McDowell, according to Bill Lowe, a Sterling resident who said he arrived at the fire before firefighters.

"We didn't see anything at first, but someone knocked on our door and when we went out, there was black smoke everywhere," Lowe said. He lives about 1/4 mile from the burned building.

Lowe said it had not been used as a fish plant since fuel was found to be leaking into the ground from the nearby Tesoro gas station "years ago."

"The building's been up for sale for a number of years," Lowe said.

Firefighters managed to save two smaller buildings nearby. Those buildings were valued at $5,000.

Orth said CES set up a water fill station at the nearby Isaac Walton state campground, pulling water from the river using a five-inch line.

CES responded with three fire engines, three tankers, a ladder truck and a rescue unit, and the Kenai Fire Department sent a water tanker and crew, according to Orth.

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