Flames on Flume Street

Old Enloe Hospital building scorched by fire; cause yet to be determined

JULY 5th FIREWORKS<br>Chico firefighters battle the Flume Street building blaze in the midday sun as Fire Chief Steve Brown, in vehicle to the right, coordinates the effort. Brown said the fire was the worst in the city since the 1997 inferno that consumed the old Reddengray Pub building at First Street on the Chico State University campus.

Chico firefighters battle the Flume Street building blaze in the midday sun as Fire Chief Steve Brown, in vehicle to the right, coordinates the effort. Brown said the fire was the worst in the city since the 1997 inferno that consumed the old Reddengray Pub building at First Street on the Chico State University campus.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Historical update:
In 1955 the Trinity Methodist Church asked the city for permission to operate a private recreation center and Sunday school in the Flume Street building. The city said the church could do so as long as it complied with all building and fire requirements.

While acrid gray smoke drifted across the Farmers’ Market, market customers drifted across Third Street and gathered to watch a raging fire consume the top story of the old Enloe Hospital building on Flume Street.

Just after 10:30 Saturday morning, July 5, hair stylist Aaron Pico was in the middle of coloring a client’s hair in the 330 Flume St. Salon when he heard a fire alarm coming from an apartment in the rear of the building.

“It was really faint, and I figured it was an alarm clock,” he said.

There are two apartments, both to the rear of the building on the second and third floors. The salon is on the second floor.

Pico said he heard a siren coming from the street, looked out and he saw a tenant from the third-floor apartment standing on the sidewalk, wrapped in a bath towel, talking on a cell phone.

Pico went downstairs and saw smoke and flames coming from the back of the building. He said he ran back upstairs and told his client to get out, but when he peeked around the corner of the building and saw firefighters apparently controlling the blaze, he and his client went back up to the salon to finish the hair job and call the salon’s owners, Bill and Lori Elliot.

But then, just to be safe, he went out to check again and noticed the crowd gathering across the street. At that point, he said, he looked up and saw the roof of the building was ablaze.

Hair styling was done for the day.

Fifty firefighters, using both ladder trucks for the first time in a decade, fought the stubborn blaze for the next eight hours as hundreds of people watched from across Flume Street. The fire proved especially troublesome because of the many remodels—both permitted and clandestine—the building has gone through since it was built in 1913.

Hidden spaces made it difficult to reach the flames, and many interior walls added over the years prevented the planned collapse of the third-floor exterior walls firefighters had hoped to use as a way to contain the flames.

In the end, the two apartments, home to four people, and the Loft Art School, which had just opened a few months earlier, were completely destroyed. Firefighters salvaged a few pieces of art from the school, which was located on the third floor. Much of the hair salon inventory and equipment was spared. The basement of the split-level building housed the Paradise Lost video store and served as a storage space for the building’s owner, Roy Ellis Jr., 62, who’s owned it since 1970.

Only about a quarter of the video store inventory, rare cult films, was salvaged.

Marie Fickert, Chico Fire Department information officer, said the cause of the blaze has yet to be determined. The fire apparently started in the third-floor apartment. Tenant Michael Atienza told Fickert he had lit some incense, and when he emerged from a shower, the apartment was on fire.

Fickert said because of the building’s precarious condition, an investigation into the cause of the blaze has yet to begin.

“It could have been the burning incense, electrical problems or some as-of-yet undetermined cause,” she said.

On Sunday, she said, she and Chico building inspector Dave Purvis, building owner Ellis and some fire inspectors toured the inside of the building and determined the structure was too dangerous to allow anyone else back in, including the tenants looking to salvage any possessions.

Ellis is making arrangements with a demolition company to shore up the remaining part of the building. Purvis said Ellis’ insurance company will make the final determination of the building’s fate.

The city’s Building Department has no record of ever issuing a permit for residential occupancy. The only reference to such is an inter-office memo dated Nov. 19, 1971, when a party named Joe Arcoraci & Associate was “interested in residential use of ‘old Enloe Hosp Bldg.’ “

The memo says Arcoraci was advised that a use permit was required, off-street parking had to be provided and that “plans must be submitted to advise more details of bldg requirements.” The memo ends noting that Arcoraci would most likely drop the project.

A few years after Ellis purchased the building, the Chico Feminist Women’s Health Center moved in and occupied the entire third floor and had its offices on part of the second.

A source said the second-story apartment had been there for at least 25 years, but the third-floor apartment was not built until after the health center had moved to its present location on Humboldt Road about seven years ago.

Purvis said it was hard to track residential use of the building.

“Rights of occupancy, that is a screwy situation,” he said. “Over the years things change, including building use and building and occupancy codes, and sometimes use gets grandfathered in prior to any code changes.”

Other Building Department staff members said they didn’t want to speculate as to how or when the apartments were built.

Purvis did say the city had dealt with various remodels of the building in recent years. “We had a little fight with Roy [Ellis] a few years ago,” he said. In November 1999, Ellis removed the balcony attached to the north side of the building, which stands about 15 feet from two Victorian homes next door. The work was being done without a permit, which was brought to the city’s attention.

“Fortunately we took some code enforcement action and forced him to build a firewall on the north side. We often suspected there was work being done there that we weren’t told about,” Purvis said.

He said Ellis was also issued a code violation a few years ago for piles of debris sitting behind the building.