Firefighters Fought Smoke, Heat to Make Sure Building Was Clear

Officials Detail Harrowing Response to Winlock Blaze; Remaining Structure to Be Demolished


At 7:25 p.m. on Tuesday, a two-person firefighter crew and a two-person medic crew from Lewis County Fire District 15 were dispatched to reports of a fire at The Haunted Hostel, B&B and Hotel on 104 SE Front St. in Winlock.

They arrived to find smoke pouring from an upstairs window on the north side of the building and panicked bystanders reporting about 30 people had escaped the burning structure but that there might still be people trapped on the second floor.

Firefighters immediately suited up to search the building, having to crawl upstairs on their hands and knees to get through the intense heat and thick, black smoke.

Mutual aid crews from District 5 in Napavine and District 2 in Toledo soon responded to join in the search.

“We deployed all crews for an upstairs search before we did anything else to get people out, and we didn’t find anything, so we’re grateful for that,” said District 15 Chief Rich Underdahl.

The heat and smoke from the blaze ultimately drove the search crews out of the building, but not before they checked every room to ensure no one was inside, Underdahl said.

“The good thing is, we can tell that everybody who was in the building got out OK,” he added.

Except for minor injuries sustained by a firefighter in a fall, and reports that some cats are unaccounted for, no injuries were reported in what became a massive blaze in downtown Winlock Tuesday night.

Those evacuated from the structure watched the flames from the parking lot of the Cedar Village IGA a safe distance away. Other Winlock residents who were in the area joined them, offering emotional support and bringing needed items such as blankets while waiting for the Red Cross to arrive with aid.

“The town really pulled together,” one Winlock resident told The Chronicle.

Representatives from the Winlock Assembly of God Church also arrived to offer aid, and Twin Transit dispatched two buses to serve as temporary warming shelters and transport evacuees to a Red Cross shelter at OYO Hotel in Chehalis Tuesday night.

“I'm very grateful that nobody was hurt and very grateful for the folks that showed up to help,” Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson said.

As soon as crews backed out of the burning building Tuesday evening, they shifted firefighting strategy from an offensive to a defensive posture, “which means that we were just going to try to surround (on) the ground and keep this from extending into other areas,” Underdahl said.

Smoke and flames soon started venting out of the roof, and while ground crews tried to douse the roof with water, “we were losing that battle,” Underdahl said.

“It’s a very old building,” he said.

With flames threatening the city’s power lines, the Lewis County Public Utility District cut power to the City of Winlock around 9:30 p.m.

Soon after power was cut, the flames melted some power lines and a utility pole caught fire.

“I definitely thank the PUD for coming out quickly and helping us take care of that and cut the power because that's a huge safety risk to the first responders,” Svenson said.

Crews were able to extinguish the utility pole before it sustained significant damage.

As of Wednesday morning, power had been restored to Winlock and utility crews were working to restore internet and cell service.

Fire personnel were initially worried that cutting the power would mean losing access to the city’s water, but that did not happen, Underdahl said.

“The city did an excellent job,” he said.

Riverside Fire Authority responded with a ladder truck — which was delayed slightly due to a jack-knifed semi-truck on state Route 505 — to help fight the flames on the roof.

Crews were able to knock the flames down overnight, with District 15 tending the scene through Wednesday afternoon to extinguish hot spots.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation as of Wednesday afternoon.

In addition to Winlock, Toledo, Napavine and Riverside crews, firefighters from District 7 in Vader, District 6 in Chehalis/Adna and the Chehalis Fire Department responded.

Mutual aid was also offered by District 1 in Onalaska and District 13 in Boistfort but ultimately wasn’t needed.

Additionally, the Winlock Police Department, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and Lewis County Emergency Management responded to help manage the scene.

“I think it basically went as well as could be expected,” Svenson said. “It’s an unfortunate situation, being one of our historic buildings.”

According to a Facebook post from the Winlock Historical Museum made earlier this year, the Winlock Haunted Hostel was previously “Warne’s Drug Store,” and had a soda fountain inside the corner door. Later, there was a beauty shop in the back of the building. There was also a computer repair shop then an antique shop. In other posts about the building, signs had previously been seen in the windows advertising monthly leases.

“The building had a bad rap, but there were good people in there,” a relative of someone evacuated from the Haunted Hostel told The Chronicle.

Fire and law enforcement personnel were not allowing anyone inside the building as of Wednesday morning due to the instability of the structure, said Underdahl.

Svenson said he has been in contact with a demolition company to safely tear what remains of the building down as soon as possible.

“I have to get that building on the ground immediately, like, it needs to be done right now,” he said. “We're working on getting that done legally, because it is a massive safety concern, being a block building like that and having a bunch of it already on the ground.”

Access to downtown Winlock was still significantly limited as of Wednesday morning.

Authorities advised people to avoid the area until further notice.