Burned again

Second historic building in three months lost to fire on old Diamond Match property

THE FIRE THIS TIME<br>The old fire house sits behind the burned remnants of the lumber warehouse at the former Diamond Match property.

The old fire house sits behind the burned remnants of the lumber warehouse at the former Diamond Match property.

Photo By Tom Angel

Up in smoke:
A decade ago the city of Chico paid $90,000 to purchase the timbers used in construction of the lumber warehouse. With the future of the property up in the air at the time, city officials reasoned the purchase would help preserve the building. And even if it were eventually torn down, at least the wood, milled a century ago in Stirling City, would be salvaged.

Not much remains of the lumber warehouse destroyed by fire on the property of the old Diamond Match Company Nov. 20.

While an investigation continues, Chico Fire Chief Steve Brown said his department is calling Saturday morning’s blaze a “suspicious fire” likely started by a human hand, whether by accident or not.

It’s the second fire in a little more than three months to destroy a century-old building on the property. An early-morning blaze Aug. 2 took down the building known as the apiary, where beehives were once made. Just like the apiary, the lumber warehouse had no utilities hooked up, ruling out natural causes such as an electrical malfunction or a gas leak.

Brown said the extent of the damage, which turned the 34,000-square-foot building into a bed of twisted metal and smoldering embers, has made it difficult to find clues and that investigators will likely have to depend on leads from the community.

There have been various reports from neighbors, the chief said, over the last two weeks claiming they had seen or heard things in the area.

“Unfortunately it’s a very attractive nuisance,” Brown said of the property that has also been subject to trespassing and graffiti over the years.

The Chico Fire Department answered the initial report from nearby neighbors at approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Brown said the fire had been burning for “a fair amount of time” because the entire inside of the building had already been consumed and the roof was on the verge of collapse when he arrived.

According to the CFD report, the insured salvage value of the lumber warehouse building is around $100,000.

The century-old warehouse before the fire. It was slated to become an integral part of the new Barber Yard development, probably an open-air market.

Photo By Tom Angel

The fire also caused minor damage to the remaining two nearby structures. The engineering building sustained 11 burned wooden windows in its upper story, and the carpenters’ building received minor roof damage.

The 145-acre property is owned by Jeff Greening, who purchased it from Louisiana-Pacific Co. in 1999. L-P bought the land from Diamond in 1984. Seven years later, under court order, L-P consolidated an estimated 32,000 cubic yards of arsenic-contaminated soil into a two-acre site that was then capped with asphalt. The arsenic was used to control weeds along the railroad tracks that border the west side of the property.

In 1997 pentachlorophenol was pumped from an underground plume on the property. The Department of Toxic Substances has declared the site clean.

About a year ago, Greening and members of Barber Land, LLC unveiled a plan to develop the land into a residential-commercial project that would include 1,200 living units and a town square to be anchored by the 100-year-old remaining buildings.

Jim Stevens, a civil engineer with NorthStar Engineering and spokesman for the project, said the latest fire will most likely force existing plans to be “rethought out.” Stevens spoke on behalf of Greening, who was out of town when the fire occurred.

“He’s pretty devastated right now,” Stevens said. “He really wanted to do this for the community.”

The lumber warehouse was intended to be part the cultural center of the proposed Barber Yard Development, named after Ohio Columbus Barber, who built the Diamond Match Company plant 100 years ago. Stevens said the building is irreplaceable from a historical perspective.

“It was kind of a cultural element to the plan,” Stevens said. “It would have been a display. We would have sandblasted it, whitewashed it and used it as an open-air market.”

Stevens said it is not clear how the new City Council will receive the ambitious plan to in-fill this part of Chico but noted it was what the General Plan calls for.

In the meantime, he said Greening has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspected arson.

“He’s really pissed," Stevens said of Greening. "He doesn’t know what else to do."