A fire on Prescott's famed Whiskey Row started shortly after 6 p.m. on May 8, 2012 destroying the Bird Cage Saloon, the Prescott Food Store, and Larry & Hy's Bare Bones BBQ Restaurant. A crowd of over 200 people descended on the Yavapai Courthouse plaza to watch the fire engulf part of the historic street. Nine engine companies from Prescott Fire, Central Yavapai, and Chino Valley fire districts worked together to extinguish the fire.
Lisa Irish The Daily Courier
The day before the anniversary of the Whiskey Row Fire, workers hung the sign for The Grand Highland Hotel, shoppers tried on fashions at Jenny Longhorn Western Boutique and people passed each other on the walkway in front of the lot where three businesses burned down.
On Friday, May 17, the hotel will host an open house and ribbon cutting after "a long year and an incredible amount of work," said Howard Hinson, owner of the surviving building and the one that was destroyed.
A year ago today, at 6:13 p.m., dispatchers received the first of many calls about the Whiskey Row Fire that destroyed Pearl's Place, the Prescott Food Store, and the Bird Cage Saloon. The first engine arrived within four minutes, and after determining no one was in the buildings, firefighters went inside to attack the fire, only to soon realize that the roof was on fire and coming down.
They sprayed water from ladder trucks to keep the fire from spreading, and called in all available Prescott, Central Yavapai and Chino Valley firefighters by 6:25 p.m. Thanks to effective firefighting strategies, the firewalls between Moctezuma's, the burned down building, and Jenny Longhorn held, and the fire was knocked down by 8:14 p.m.
"I don't think it can be said enough times, the quality and professionalism of our firefighters, and the methods they used to fight the fire that left us with intact buildings around the one that burned," Hinson said. "They were able to save a good deal of business owners property including the bar (from the Bird Cage) that John's putting in his new place."
The hotel, Jenny Longhorn, and the Prescott Museum and Trading Company suffered smoke and water damage from the fire, and Prescott Police officers and citizens quickly evacuated hotel residents, letting firefighters concentrate on the fire, Prescott Fire Battalion Chief Ralph Lucas said.
"I'd like to express our thanks to the firefighters, police officers and everyone involved in stopping the fire on May 8," said Jenny Schulte, co-owner of Jenny Longhorn, which reopened six months after the fire. "We have heartfelt gratitude for them, because it could have been so much worse."
After the fire, several historic downtown buildings installed sprinklers and fire alarms during recent remodels, bringing them up to current codes, Prescott Fire Division Chief Don Devendorf said.
"It combines old-time charm with modern safety," said Lucas, operations chief for the Whiskey Row Fire.
Those improvements increased fire notification and protection abilities in the area surrounding the Courthouse Plaza, said Devendorf, incident commander for the year-ago blaze.
"Since this incident, the Quizno's building where the Bird Cage is moving has been remodeled and will be fully sprinkled before it opens again," Devendorf said. "From the old Wells Fargo Building to Lamerson's Building everything between Gurley and Union Street on Cortez is now fire-alarmed."
The building housing the Grand Highland Hotel and Jenny Longhorn installed fire safety sprinklers, as did the Burmeister Building next to Prescott Brewing Company, Devendorf said. The Union building, where Raskin's Jewelers and Lone Spur Café are located, is adding sprinklers to the upstairs, since the lower level already has sprinklers.
"Is it a coincidence? I don't think so," Devendorf said. "I think people became aware of what the catastrophic loss could be after the Whiskey Row Fire. If you own a building downtown and you drive by and see that vacant area, you probably don't want that to happen to you."
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that when they spoke to business owners they stressed that fire sprinklers and alarms save lives, increase public safety and limit potential property losses to fire.
"This makes their entire building marketable to any potential business, from a retail shop to a restaurant interested in renting space," Devendorf said.
After the fire, command staff did an incident analysis to look at what "worked well and what we can learn from," Fraijo said.
As a result of the fire, addressing on both the front and back of Whiskey Row buildings is more clearly marked and electric box labeling is improved so they can be more easily matched with each suite.
"There were no addresses on the back of the building, which made it difficult when we placed apparatus back there," Lucas said. "We could see smoke coming from the top of the building, but we didn't know which of the doors at the back of the building to open up, which is pivotal, because if you open up the wrong door then you supply it with oxygen and feed the fire."
Fire-control strategies worked and communication between firefighters from three jurisdictions on 75 radios over three channels went smoothly, Lucas said. A chief fire officer stood behind dispatchers to listen and make critical decisions on behalf of the fire department to manage the incident and all the other calls coming in.
"We taxed three cities apparatus, but the world doesn't stop," Lucas said. "People are still having chest pains, difficulty breathing, and car accidents."
Prescott, CYFD and Chino Valley firefighters have worked closely together for decades, and the way they worked together on the Whiskey Row Fire showed that, Lucas said.
"We go on calls together, we know each other's faces, we know each other's terminology, we cross-train together nonstop," Lucas said. "It's hard to tell the difference in service between the organizations."
The three agencies automatically aid each other so the closest engines go to the call while others fill in, and reserves or those off that day are called in to cover their areas, Fraijo said.
A thousand people watched the fire that night, and Prescott police kept moving the police tape and the crowd further from the fire throughout the evening to keep them safe, Lucas said.
The fire's origin
After all of Whiskey Row on Montezuma Street burned down in 1901, fire prevention methods included creating firewalls of brick between buildings that had been built linked together and completely from wood, Lucas said.
"A hundred years later, fire breaks out on Whiskey Row and we're standing out here with all this modern fire apparatus to fight the fire, but it was those brick firewalls that helped stop it," Lucas said. "One hundred years from now, I'll bet they'll say 'If we didn't have those sprinklers in place we would have lost 100 people,' or something like that."
At the fire last year, firefighters remained overnight to make sure it did not reignite.
Fire investigators worked through the night to determine the fire's cause and origin, then called in the Maricopa County Fire Investigation Task Force to help the next morning.
"Investigators report that the fire started in the kitchen area of the barbecue restaurant where an appliance malfunctioned," said Prescott Fire Division Chief Eric Kriwer. "We never received final notification (from the insurance company) of the exact cause regarding how the appliance failed. The area of origin was in the kitchen area where a meat smoker appliance was in use. The fire was carried through the attic area by the hood system."
Investigators believe the fire spread rapidly into the attic space before moving into the two adjacent businesses, Kriwer said.
"We narrowed down the cause to an area that included two appliances and a trash can," Devendorf said. "Once we get to that point, the insurance companies came in, took the appliances and sent them off to a lab."
Devendorf said a hood with a fire protection system is required in any area there may be grease laden vapors, but the smoker at Pearl's did not have grease laden vapors so there was no requirement for fire protection in the hood, nor was there a requirement to detail and clean the hood since it wasn't being used.
Pearl's Place Café did not have insurance, but the Bird Cage, the Prescott Food Store and Hinson, the building owner did, Devendorf said.
The morning after the fire, as affected business owners talked to investigators, Mike Paper, owner of Pearl's Place Café, looked inside his business, saw fallen rafters, no roof, everything inside charred and said, "We're not sure what we're going to do."
We dance, then rebuild
A May 20, 2012 fundraiser brought in $86,000 that was split among owners of the three destroyed businesses. John and Debi Stamm said they'd use benefit money to renovate the Bird Cage, Mike Paper said his share helped pay off debt from Pearl's Place Café, and Kishore Patel of Prescott Food Store said he was looking at options to re-open.
Owners said they gave a portion of the benefit money to their 10 employees, and other benefits helped the six Bird Cage, two Prescott Food Store, and two Pearl's Place employees, many of whom found new jobs.
Workers razed the burned-out building, and the Prescott Preservation Commission approved a new architectural design in late July that includes a street-level walkway connecting Whiskey Row to the alley, links the new building to the Grand Highland Hotel and Jenny Longhorn, and has an upper-level patio and restaurant space planned.
While Pearl's Place and the Prescott Food Store have not returned to Whiskey Row, the Bird Cage raised its sign on March 25, five doors south of its original location.
"It (the fire) took us to our knees, basically," Debi Stamm said. "It also made us stronger. I think we've all built a lot of character this year - a lot of humility, a lot of strength."
The future of the empty lot where the Bird Cage once stood remains unclear.
"I know people wonder when we're going to do more with the building that was burned out," Hinson said. "We're going to turn our attention to that this summer and see what we can put up that will benefit this community."