A series of eight baffling and mostly unsolved fires that have destroyed small-town bars throughout the Inland Northwest – which some say is mere coincidence – continued Tuesday when an overnight blaze destroyed a bar and grill just hours before its grand opening in the Whitman County town of Palouse.
The cause of the 4 a.m. fire that gutted the Brick Wall Bar & Grill on Main Street is undetermined, but investigators say they are intrigued by the discovery of an unlocked door and a large spill of fresh white paint and a scrawled profanity on the pavement outside the building.
Firefighters from nearby Pullman and Colfax helped two dozen volunteers from Palouse keep the fire from spreading. There were no injuries or an immediate damage estimate.
“It was a real possibility that we could have lost the entire block” housing six other businesses, said Michael Echanove, mayor of Palouse, which has a population of 1,015.
Last September, 30-year-old Adam Barron, a plumbing business owner, purchased the corner landmark building, built in the late 1800s. Until Dec. 31, it housed the Palouse Bar, a local watering hole that followed a string of other businesses – a bank, an ice cream shop, a post office, a five-and-dime store, and a coin-operated laundry.
“I honestly don’t have a clue,” Barron said when asked about the cause of the fire. “It will take more than $1 million to rebuild it, I’m guessing, and we don’t have that kind of insurance. I want to rebuild, yes, because, otherwise, it’s going to leave a big hole right in the center of town and I don’t want that.”
The bar owner invited about 60 friends and community residents to a “soft opening” Monday evening at the bar and grill that he and volunteers had spent months refurbishing. Instead of just an adults-only bar, its broader grill menu would allow children inside.
Palouse police Chief Jerry Neumann, who had taken vacation time to join other volunteers in helping Barron paint and remodel the bar over the last few months, was among the guests at Monday’s invitational opening.
“I had dinner in there last night with 60 other people, and everybody was having a good time,” Neumann said.
Just hours later, the chief raced back to the remodeled bar after a 911 caller reported the fire shortly before 4 a.m. Neumann said he immediately noticed the paint spill that subsequently was covered with bricks and debris when the exterior walls collapsed.
“I noticed a big paint splotch on the ground, no bucket, just paint,” the chief said. “It appears to me someone attempted to use the white paint to scrawl a profanity on the pavement.”
He added, “What really has me puzzled is we also have an unlocked door at the back side of the building, and no one has been able to find the paint can.”
Marc VanHarn, a fabricator and machinist who owns Vintage Velocity Rods in the same block, was among the first volunteer firefighters on scene. “The entire east side was enveloped in smoke when I got here,” he said.
“I was in a hurry to go to the station to get my fire gear but, yes, I saw the white paint,” the volunteer firefighter said. “I used to be a contractor, and I know what freshly spilled paint looks like.”
Rich Dragoo, a fire prevention officer and investigator from the Pullman Fire Department, inspected the scene and said he tentatively concluded the fire started in the back of the building.
“I do not think arson was a factor in this,” Dragoo said, but he later added that he did not know about the white paint spill and accompanying profanity and the unlocked door.
Townsfolk spent the warm spring day on blocked-off Main Street, watching smoke wisps curl from the building ruins, just yards away from the runoff-heavy Palouse River.
“The post office was there for years and I remember going into the five-and-dime as a kid to buy school supplies and candy,” said 75-year-old Joan “Pinky” Glass, a retired Navy nurse who now lives in Pullman. Her great-grandmother and her grandmother, the late Ethel Bagot, used to live in an apartment on the building’s second floor, Glass said.
“I came up and was going to go there for dinner tonight for the grand opening,” she said, “but now this. It just breaks my heart.”
Since May of last year, there have been at least seven other bar fires in rural communities in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and northwestern Montana. Those fires were detailed in a March 9 story published in The Spokesman-Review. Not included in that wrap-up was a fire last June, now believed to be arson-caused, which destroyed the Dirty Shame bar on Willow Bay in Stevens County, northwest of Spokane.