Ridge fire cause unknown, report says

Several potential ignition sources found

PORT ANGELES — The investigation into the origin and cause of May 7 fire that destroyed the Hurricane Ridge Day Lodge determined an area of origin but not the fire’s specific cause, according to Olympic National Park.

The fire investigation was conducted by Rimkus, an engineering and technical consulting firm that has an office in Richmond, B.C. and Talbott Associates Inc. of Portland, Ore., between July 12 and Aug. 16, according to the report’s “scope of investigation” section.

The report was completed Dec. 21 but not publicized until Friday, when Olympic National Park sent out a press release to news outlets and also posted it to their official Facebook page.

“Now that the report is done, it’s full speed ahead,” Olympic National Park Superintendent Sula Jacobs said Friday in an emailed statement received after comment was requested.

”We are doing everything we can to work on rebuilding the lodge,” she said. “Until a permanent structure returns, we will continue to maximize the visitor experience at Hurricane Ridge.”

The investigators provided the report to the National Park Service on Dec. 27 and an addendum was added on Jan. 8. (Another addendum may be added in the coming days to confirm the investigation’s start date.)

The full report is available online at FOIA – Frequently Requested Documents (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov).

Several potential ignition sources were identified but the specific source could not be determined, the release said.

The investigation determined the fire likely originated in the northeast main level of the two-story, 12,201-square-foot, historic structure.

The lodge was unoccupied and undergoing a full interior renovation at the time.

“The long burn time destroyed evidence of fire patterns, triggered additional potential ignition sources, and compromised the investigators’ ability to analyze electrical components within the fire’s suspected area of origin,” the release said.

The report said: “Due to the challenges presented by the physical evidence, the cause of the fire cannot be determined on a more probable than not basis, Due to the number and nature of potential ignition sources, further examination would not contribute to a scientifically valid cause of this fire. Thus, a destructive evidence examination has not been conducted to date.”

Evidence of electrical arcing was visible on the sub-panel conduits, the report said. “The presence of electrical arcing requires that electrical panels and circuits be energized at the time of fire attack,” it said.

According to Sen. Patty Murray’s office, if the report had found a person or contractor responsible for the fire, that person or company could have been sued for damages. Otherwise, the report’s completion has no impact on the process for replacing the building.

The fire started between 9:06 a.m. and 10:41 a.m., based upon when the building webcam’s stopped streaming, according to the report. When the fire was discovered by two park rangers at 4:30 p.m. May 7, the building was already described as a “total loss,” the release said.

Two park employees had entered the building at 8:36 a.m. the morning of the fire as part of their duties to sample water in the restroom and reported nothing unusual, the report said, adding that it was unknown whether they left light switches on during their visit.

The fire alarm system was not monitored by a third-party fire alarm company, the report said, adding that it was local alarm system only.

When the fire was discovered by the two park rangers, most of the lodge had burned mostly to the ground. Firefighters faced a shortage of water to fight the fire and focused instead on containing it until it burned itself out.

The lodge had been undergoing planned a two-year, $10.8 million renovation project funded through the Great American Outdoors Act.

Blue Mountain Electric of Oak Harbor was one of the contractors working on the renovation at the time of the fire. Owner Nathan Howat said he had sent the report to his attorney and hadn’t heard back, so he probably shouldn’t say anything until that occurs. Jeff Granlee of JMG Constructors, another contractor involved in the renovation, could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment.

Meanwhile, the effort continues to get $80 million into the federal budget to replace the building that was dedicated by then Washington State Rep. Henry M. Jackson in September 1952.

Since replacing the building is not renovating it, Olympic National Park has to go through the same appropriations process as it did when funding for the renovation project was awarded, according to congressional aides.

In October, Murray, D-Whidbey Island, earmarked $80 million for rebuilding Hurricane Ridge as part of a $374 billion supplemental budget request.

Park spokesperson Molly Pittman said Friday she didn’t know how long the funding process might take. Demolition of the shell and construction of a new one are separate contracts. As a governmental agency, Olympic National Park is self-insured, she said.

“We are working on designing a new building and creating new contracts,” Pittman wrote in a Friday afternoon email. She also wrote that although the fire’s cause could not be determined, the report contained valuable information about potential fire hazards in future construction projects.

The lodge had been structurally renovated numerous times in its lifetime, and it housed the area’s hub for electrical, water, and communications infrastructure. As a result, the fire destroyed the facilities necessary to support full recreational access. Temporary restrooms allowed for limited public access throughout the summer of 2023.

The Hurricane Ridge area closed on Oct. 16 last year for utilities construction and the demolition of the remaining lodge debris. The area reopened for winter recreation on the usual date, the Friday following Thanksgiving. The area is currently open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to winter visitors through March 31.

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Reporter Brian Gawley can be reached at Brian.Gawley@peninsuladailynews.com.

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