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Accidental cause speculated for South Fork Café fire

Stites restaurant destroyed; draws multi-agency firefighter response throughout region

Firefighters tackle a portion of the second-story structure behind the South Fork Cafe late Friday night.

Photo by David Rauzi
Firefighters tackle a portion of the second-story structure behind the South Fork Cafe late Friday night.


Friday June 26 - South Fork Cafe fire, Stites

Initial response.

Initial response.


South Fork Cafe fire Friday June 26, 2015

Full response. Partially contained.

Full response. Partially contained.

STITES – Initial speculation is an accidental cause for last Friday night’s structure fire that destroyed the South Fork Café on Stites’ Main Street.

“We don’t have any reason to believe it was intentional,” said Chief Lucky Brandt, Stites Volunteer Fire Department, for the June 26 blaze that consumed the restaurant – built more than four years ago — and caused heat and smoke damage to the attached two-story office/storage section. The facility is considered a total loss and was insured. No injuries were reported.

“Tentatively, we’re looking at this as an accidental, unintentional fire,” said Mark Anderson, chief for Kooskia Volunteer Fire Department. “But no hard conclusions have been reached.” Investigation will review recovered evidence, including internal surveillance video, and due to the size of this incident it will be thoroughly investigated, he continued, and hopefully a cause determined within the next two weeks.

Stites drew on a multi-agency response to the structure fire, called in by Renee Schlieper as fully engulfed at 9:58 p.m., that imminently threatened an adjacent business and residence, each about 10 feet away.

“We really needed some help, and everybody came,” Brandt said, that included crews from Harpster, Kooskia, Kamiah, Ridge Runner and BPD fire departments; around 10 vehicles were on scene.

“We were very fortunate. It was a very still night,” he continued, that helped keep the fire from being spread to adjacent structures. As well, the fire, which originated on a back porch, moved through a wall and into the middle of the building. As a result, the side walls remained standing, he said, allowing firefighters to move alongside and keep them cool to project adjacent buildings and contain the fire to the middle of the café.

The fire is believed to have originated on the back porch by the kitchen area, moving into the attic where it spread quickly throughout the structure. Assisting the investigation will be interior surveillance video recovered from the building, according to Brandt, that shows the last employees to leave, including owner Maryann Henshaw, and later where smoke was coming through a wall adjacent to the porch, as well as in other parts of the building. Within 15 to 20 minutes of persons exiting, the fire was called in.

Firefighters contained the blaze within two hours and controlled it around 1 a.m. Brandt said crews remained on scene until 7 a.m., battling hot spots all night. With engines and hoses spread across Main and East streets, State Highway 13 traffic was rerouted along Lukes Gulch and Battle Ridge roads until after 1 a.m.

Brandt was thankful for the response from neighboring departments to tackle what was not only a big fire but in close proximity to other structures. The additional personnel and equipment helped here as well as in the event spot fires were to have spread elsewhere in town due to drifting embers. The issue of personnel is a continued one for the Stites department, and another reason the agency called out for additional support, he said.

“We are always on the lookout for more volunteer firefighters,” Brandt said. “We have enough rolling stock. We don’t have enough personnel,” adding at the outset of the firefighting effort they had to pull people off the street to work the hoses.

Initial firefighter response to the scene was around eight minutes after the call. Idaho County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Sokolowski, stationed in the Clearwater Valley area for two years, noted multiple negative comments from bystanders at the fire scene on a perceived slow firefighter response. He repeated Brandt’s concern for a lack of personnel for the department to serve the community, adding, “If they’re going to complain, then maybe they should volunteer.”

Overall, Brandt was very appreciative of all those who assisted on the effort.

“We really do appreciate having all those people to lean on, and the public,” he said, “and the county deputies; they managed the scene very well.”

Additional scene assistance was provided by Kooskia and Kamiah ambulance and ICSO deputies Sokolowski, Craig Hoodman, Keith Olsen and Tom Remington.


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