Business owners plan to rebuild after massive downtown blaze
It took the efforts of six fire departments and more than 1.5 million gallons of water to contain the predawn blaze that ravaged downtown Quincy on Sunday, Dec. 15, but less than 24 hours later business owners were planning to rebuild.
“I’d like to start construction in the spring,” said Tommy Miles, who purchased the former Great Northern Hair Co. building on Main Street in October and planned to open Cornerstone Learning there on Jan. 6, 2014.
Down the block, Sonny Khalid and his brother, Mo, are also making plans. The brothers bought the Pizza Factory two months ago and watched Sunday as their business burned.
The fire originated upstairs in the Pizza Factory, though the cause is still unknown.
“The fire is still under investigation,” Sheriff Greg Hagwood said. “It is going to be treated as ‘suspicious’ until we can prove otherwise.”
The sheriff’s department is working in conjunction with Mark Rotlisberger, of CalFire.
Rotlisberger arrived at the scene of the fire at approximately 6:20 a.m., after receiving a call from Quincy Fire Chief Robbie Cassou, and remained on scene until late in the afternoon.
The investigation is ongoing and Rotlisberger will release a report when he has completed his interviews and analyzed the evidence.
“This can take a while depending on whether it’s a crime,” Rotlisberger said. “If it’s criminal, the report goes to the sheriff; if it’s not, it goes to the fire department.”
The fire, which broke out at 4 a.m. in the 400 block of Main Street, was the largest Quincy had experienced since an entire block burned at the site of the old Ayoobs building in 1934. At that time, there were only two fire trucks in the valley — one in Quincy and another in Meadow Valley.
Fire departments from several outlying areas responded to Sunday’s fire, including crews from Meadow Valley, Greenhorn, Long Valley, Crescent Mills and Graeagle.
At least 45 firefighters and several fire engines were on the scene.
In addition to completely destroying the Pizza Factory, the fire spread through the attic and destroyed the adjacent former Quincy Chamber of Commerce office. A new business, High Sierra Vapor, had just opened in that office.
Quincy Thrift was also destroyed, as was the former Great Northern building.
Subfreezing temperatures, combined with the fact that the buildings are connected, complicated the firefighting efforts.
“Most of the buildings are connected in some way,” Fire Chief Cassou said. “Not just the attics, but the basements. It makes it tougher for us.”
Cassou said firefighters were putting more than 4,000 gallons of water per minute on the blaze. However, he said much of the water was freezing as soon as it hit the ground, adding to the difficulty.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. initially shut off power to portions of the downtown area. Office of Emergency Services Director Jerry Sipe said that a warming center was opened at the Veterans Hall in case the power was out for a long period of time, but it was quickly restored to most of downtown.
Cassou contacted the Quincy Community Services District to make sure that enough water would be available to firefighters.
East Quincy Community Services District assisted by opening its valve and sharing 165,000 gallons of water. Larry Sullivan, general manager of the Quincy district, said that his organization would absorb the cost of the water.
As the fire advanced toward the historic Clinch Building, home to Jenelli’s Bakery, Main Street Artists, the Knook, Quincy Courtyard Suites and the Drunk Brush, efforts focused on saving that building. And even though it suffered extensive water and smoke damage, firefighters were able to protect the building.
Chief Cassou described a process referred to as positive pressure ventilation, which forces smoke and flames away from a building and back toward the source.
By about 10 a.m., firefighters had cleared a swath between Great Northern and the Clinch Building to act as a firebreak. Janice Thomas, lead maintenance supervisor for the county road department, drove a front end loader through smoke and flames to protect the Clinch structure.
Cassou said that firefighters were doing a “two in, two out” — for every two firefighters inside a building with oxygen tanks, there were two in reserve standing outside.
Firefighters were required to take a break and get checked out after 30 minutes inside the building.
No injuries were reported during the fire.
In addition to the firefighters, other agencies provided necessary support. The California Highway Patrol diverted traffic around the scene, while Caltrans dumped loads of sand on the road as the water was quickly becoming a solid sheet of ice. The sheriff’s department, the county road department and PG&E remained on scene to assist in the firefighting efforts.
Citizens pitched in to carry items from buildings and the Courthouse Café cooked breakfast for the volunteers. Pangaea opened its doors so that items carried from the threatened buildings could be saved.
The Khalid brothers owned the building that housed Pizza Factory and two other businesses: Quincy Thrift and High Sierra Vapor (the former chamber office space).
“I have received so many texts and calls from people I don’t even know,” Sonny Khalid said during an interview Monday. “Everybody wants to help.”
Khalid, whose primary residence is in Sacramento, said he has been overwhelmed by the support his family has received since coming into Quincy.
He and his brother plan to rebuild and make the new site even larger.
Jeanne Brovelli, owner of Jenelli’s Bakery, was unaware that a fire was threatening her business until she received a call from Kim Morrison, owner of the Courthouse Café, around 7 a.m.
She rushed to Main Street to discover that firefighters were already retrieving items from her shop to safeguard them from the fire.
Firefighters covered her ovens and large items with tarps to protect them from water.
“It should be a few weeks before we are up and running again,” Brovelli said.
Traci Turner (formerly Traci Morrow), the owner of Quincy Thrift, wasn’t as fortunate. She had spent the Friday evening prior to the fire ensuring that her store was as stocked as possible for one of the busiest shopping times of the year.
Turner was in Nevada City securing more items for her store when she received a call about 8 a.m. alerting her to the fire.
When she arrived in Quincy, her store was destroyed and she could see one small flame still burning in the center of it.
“I’m just so grateful that no one was hurt,” she said.
Turner might open temporarily in the former La Casa Bella location across the street from the Quincy post office. Donations may be dropped off there or monetary contributions can be made to an account set up for her at Plumas Bank by friends of the business.
Though Turner lost a lot of inventory in the blaze, her prized Star Wars action figures were in storage and she wants her longtime customers to know that they are unharmed.
While Tommy Miles’ plans to open at his new location remain on hold, he will continue to tutor students at his current office at 519 Main St.
Miles had renovated the new space, but had not yet moved all of his equipment to the location.
Like Brovelli, Miles learned that his building was threatened after receiving a call from Kim Morrison.
“I was really impressed with the firefighters,” Miles said, and added if anyone questioned the need for a ladder truck in Quincy, Sunday’s fire proved its importance.
He and the rest of the business owners expressed not only gratitude for the firefighters, but also for the community.
“People have been asking what they can do to help,” he said.
Miles is a one-man operation, but the Pizza Factory employed 13 people. The Khalids are anxious to rebuild as soon as possible because they are worried about their employees, especially because it’s the holidays.
Environmental Health Director Sipe said that the property will be secured so that no one is injured walking down the street. He noted that a basement ran under two of the businesses, making the situation even more precarious.
After the site is secure it will be assessed for hazardous materials such as asbestos and heavy metals.
Then owners will be allowed to salvage items from the debris. That may be done on site or at a remote location.
Once the site has been cleared, construction can begin. Miles and the Khalids are working with their respective insurance companies to begin the process as soon as possible.
Reporters James Wilson and Dan McDonald, along with Publisher Mike Taborski, contributed to this report.