A predawn fire Wednesday destroyed the popular Pizza Pete's restaurant in Soldotna. No one was injured in the blaze, which investigators are calling suspicious.
Firefighters were summoned to the scene in the middle of the night and extinguished a fire in the basement, only to be called back several hours later for a second, larger fire at the same location.
"We have a red flag being raised," said Gary Hale, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services. "At this time it is under investigation."
Dispatchers received a call that smoke was coming from the back of the building and paged for a response at 1:38 a.m. Four minutes later, CES reached the scene and found smoke and flames in the basement of the eatery on the Kenai Spur Highway.
"The fire was declared under control 17 minutes after we arrived on scene, and final extinguishment was 15 minutes after that," he said.
Firefighters traced the origin of the fire to a utility room that contained the building's boiler, water heater, ice maker, washing machine and a dryer. The starting point was on the floor next to the laundry units, where they found charred remains of combustible rags that appeared to have been under a baseboard heater.
The fire crew checked the walls and ceiling throughout the area, removing coverings and using a new thermal sensing device to search for heat sources.
"The area was checked twice by Fire Chief Len Malmquist and Investigator Gordon Orth," Hale said.
Hale added that they concluded at that time that the fire was accidental in origin and completely extinguished. They departed the scene at 3:49 a.m.
The owner, Mike Charalam-bous, and his wife were on the scene. The owners reported that they remained at the restaurant and checked it thoroughly before departing about 6 a.m., Hale said.
The owners could not be reached for comment.
At 6:50 a.m., dispatchers again paged out that smoke was coming from the building.
Emergency responders were on the scene in about two minutes and found heavy smoke and flames coming from the basement.
The second time the fire was more extensive. It caused one floor of the building to collapse, so firefighters had to evacuate the structure and fight the flames from the exterior.
"It took us almost two hours to bring the fire under control," Hale said. "We worked our butts off."
Both fires involved mutual aid from the Kenai Fire Department, which sent one fire truck. The total response involved four fire engines, one ladder truck, an ambulance, a rescue vehicle and three command vehicles. The number of responders involved was not available Wednesday.
The estimated damage was still being tallied at press time.
According to Kenai Peninsula Borough tax records, the restaurant opened in 1990.
The borough assessed the building, built originally in 1964, as worth $115,100.
The building also contained a large amount of inventory in food, furniture and supplies.
Hale called the circumstances of the fire highly unusual.
The short time between when the owner left the property at 6 a.m. and the report of the second, larger fire at 6:50 a.m. does not add up, he said.
"It raises a question," Hale said.
The investigation is focusing on three possibilities: arson, the original fire rekindled or an unrelated accidental fire broke out in the building and their proximity is coincidental. At this point, the investigation involves personnel from CES, the Soldotna Police Department and the insurance company.
Investigators are trying to pinpoint the origin of the second blaze and should have more information soon, Hale said.
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