Homer Volunteer Fire Department firefighters fought for almost 10 hours a fire on East Bunnell Avenue early Saturday morning. While two residents and their pets escaped injury, the two-story apartment and commercial building burned almost to the ground, with just one concrete-block section still intact.
According to Homer Police, the fire was reported at 2:37 a.m. June 4 in a building at 177 E. Bunnell Ave., the former Haas Dance Studio between the Homer Public Health and the Compass Rose buildings on the Kachemak Bay side of Bunnell. Firefighters kept the fire from spreading to the neighboring structures.
East Bunnell Avenue is in the Old Town area, and is the access to Beluga Place and Bishop’s Beach. The fire shut down the road to Bishop’s Beach until about noon Saturday. Old Town contains residential and vacation cottages, an art gallery, a motel, several cafes and restaurants, an RV park, the Homer Elks Lodge, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and a cannabis shop. Some of the buildings are historic wood frame structures dating back to the 1930s.
HVFD Chief Mark Kirko said the building owner and a partner lived in an upstairs apartment at the front or street side of the building. They heard smoke alarms at about 2:30 a.m., and when they attempted to get out through an inside staircase, noticed smoke in the building. They also couldn’t get out through an exterior staircase on the south side of the building. A man got out through a window and onto an awning and then jumped to the ground. He then got a ladder and rescued the other occupant and their pets.
The downstairs of the building had been under construction and was being converted into apartments, Kirko said. Walls torn down as part of remodeling that exposed numerous cavities made the fire hard to fight. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Kirko said that as he drove down West Hill Road from his home to the fire scene he could see smoke and flames coming from the Old Town area.
“I could see the glow of flames from West Hill,” he said. “I knew it was fully involved.”
On-duty firefighters responded with Engine 2, and Kirko met them at Main Street and Bunnell Avenue. That fire engine went in with a crew of three. The initial response was hampered because of a lack of volunteer firefighters. Three on-duty firefighters were on scene with three volunteer firefighters and three EMTs. Kirko called for mutual aid from Kachemak Emergency Services and a Western Emergency Services crew from Anchor Point.
The KES crew with a ladder truck arrived about 30 minutes after the fire was paged out, Kirko said. The KES ladder truck had to be driven from the Ashwood Avenue KES station at about Mile 12 East End Road near McNeil Canyon.
“The ladder truck was an invaluable piece of equipment on that fire,” Kirko said. “We would have been there much longer.”
A fire hose and nozzle mounted on the top of the ladder truck allowed firefighters to attack the fire from above. In the initial attack, firefighters could not go into the building because it was unstable and unsafe to enter, Kirko said.
“Not having that elevated reach of water stream made it hard to fight the fire,” he said.
The downstairs area had a wood shop and lumber, and the lumber and exposed wood surfaces not covered with drywall made the fire burn that much more easier.
“Everybody worked really hard. It was a very hot, fast moving fire,” Kirko said. “It was definitely warm enough that both buildings to the side sustained some heat damage.”
The heat from the fire caused some windows in both buildings to crack, he said, but otherwise they escaped major damage. The fire did not spread to nearby homes on the beach side of the area along Charles Way or into trees and grass near the beach.
A light breeze blew smoke to the southwest, with embers falling on the parking lot behind the Compass Rose building. One occupant in a nearby house reported issues with smoke, and EMTs checked on the resident and advised them to keep windows closed.
Crews spread hose lines from a hydrant across Bunnell Avenue from the building and at the corner of Main Street and Bunnell Avenue. The Main Street hydrant broke and couldn’t be shut off, and engines had to drive over a pressurized hose. Firefighters had plenty of water to fight the fire, Kirko said.
Kirko said they had only barely enough firefighters to run two hose lines.
“It was pretty incredible what we could accomplish with the minimal people who arrived,” Kirko said.
HVFD has a volunteer roster of 34 firefighters, with some only EMS and others firefighter-EMS. Some firefighters were on vacation and others couldn’t leave because of child care issues, Kirko said.
“When you have a roster of volunteers and you don’t know when they’re going to be available, this is exactly the kind of situation you’re going to run into, where five or six people are going to have to do it all,” he said.
Another issue making fire response difficult came about when dispatchers couldn’t locate the Homer Electric Association person who could come and turn off power to the building. That made fighting the fire on the west side of the building with the power main dangerous, Kirko said.
One firefighter twisted an ankle while walking in a ditch to check on the water supply. At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, HVFD firefighters also went to a small fire on a porch at a Kachemak Drive home, but the resident was able to put out the fire.
Kirko said one of the neighbors on Bunnell Avenue asked him what they could do to help, “and I said, ‘You can go to your council meeting and explain why we need a ladder truck.”