Watching a Building Burn

I watched a building burn down today.

It started with a text from a coworker to take the North street in. The south corner was blocked by fire trucks. Building fire.

I wasn’t too surprised as that building had caught on fire a month earlier. They put it out pretty easily. Must be an electrical issue?

When I rolled into work, I realized there was no need for the warning. The streets were blocked off a couple blocks in all directions. At first I wasn’t sure if I could park in our parking lot, our building was blocked off by crime scene tape.

I was later than I wanted to be to work so I ran inside to get going.

That’s when I noticed the thick column of grey smoke billowing over the rooftops. This was no small fire.

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After I got settled, met my 8:00 meeting, made sure everyone had what they needed, I started to pay more attention to the catastrophe taking place just a half a block away.

An electrical truck pulled up and a crew hopped out to tend to electrical wires. A voice blared directions through a speaker. Occasionally a siren of a new fire truck could be heard as crews swapped out. But by and large it was very calm.

When I had a chance for a break, I decided to treat myself to a Friday coffee, and tentatively walked outside to investigate. From our front porch, I could see flames licking up full story columns of wood. Heavy smoke continued to billow, but when the wind blew, the charred interior could be seen between the smoke and flames.

We have a lot of neighbors that live in tents and temporary structures on the sidewalks around our buildings and one these neighbors had camped out on a patch of our bushes to watch.

“What a wild scene,” I said. He chuckled and agreed. Said he’d been watching this for a few hours. As I came out further, he lifted the crime scene tape and helped me not trip getting to the sidewalk. We smiled at each other and went back to watching.

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The scene was blocked off, but I noticed a pedestrian passing through and wondered if I’d cause trouble by walking that way. I tentatively started walking closer to the burning building. There were quite a few professionals milling around, fire fighters keeping an eye out, waiting to be called in, electricians discussing the risk of the power lines, other fire fighters managing giant, four story, ladder hoses that were pumping water out to keep the neighboring building wet.

No one seemed to mind me, so I kept walking. The heat started intensifying. Probably a third of the building was gone and flames were greedily devouring all of the exposed wood.

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The closer I got, the more surreal it became. I stood by a neighbor who said that it is too far gone and they are just letting it burn. Out of control, but controlled from spreading beyond the confines of this particular building. It has been left vacant for six years. Unoccupied except for folks seeking refuge. Campfire gone awry?

A very small smattering of people stood on the next street over, glued to the inferno. How strange to stand in peacefully, 60 feet away from a raging furnace.

I walked on towards Good Coffee, under the shadow of the cloud of smoke. As I passed each intersection, the scene changed each time. From the next street over, I could see the backside of the building, flames licking out the windows and eating at the roof. The tree growing next to the building was starting to char and the Ben and Jerry’s advertisement was gathering a layer of ash. More fire trucks stationed, keeping the flames at bay and protecting the surrounding buildings.

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The smoke smelled thicker as I walked the ten blocks to the coffee shop, must have been settling in that direction. Got my coffee and scone and headed back towards the office.

Again at each street, bystanders noticed the column of smoke and were slowly drawn towards the spectacle. They, or maybe I should say we, looked zombie-like, awareness dawning, steps slowing, arms instinctually drawn to their phone to snap a photo. It was an awe inspiring scene from half a mile away, and grew stranger each block closer.

The building was positioned on a hill so walking back I had a down hill looking view and could see further in to the growing wreckage. I stopped again alongside a woman who was sitting on the sidewalk, staring in silence. A new smattering of people had been drawn in to watch.

After a moment, back to the office.

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Back at my desk, with the smoke column not 500 feet away billowing over the rooftops, my attention continued to be drawn to the fire. I slack messaged my only other coworker who was in office and who was perpetually in meetings.

“You’ve gotta take a break and go look at that.” He knew what I was talking about.

When he had a minute to break away, we went outside and stood midblock, taking it in. An electrician said they suspect it was arson. And chatted about the time it started, repeated that there’s nothing they can do, just going to let it burn. We stood and stared.

What do you say in the presence of such a strange scene?

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By the end of the day, just about everything above ground level had burned, but the wreckage had fallen into the deep basement and massive flames continued to burn.

As work wrapped up, I decided to go get a beer and take another look on my way.

I paused on the sidewalk to watch as various passerbyers quietly walked up, some with their kids, to view the ongoing destruction.

I saw our building neighbor and said hello. He has been in Portland his whole life and told me the history of that building. It was built in 1890, one of the oldest in the area, previously considered the biggest fire hazard in Portland, owned by a father, passed to his son, sold to new owners, nothing has been done in 6 years. Now this.

Other bystanders overheard and jumped in to the conversation. A man on his way home from work who saw the smoke on his morning commute and was surprised to see smoke continuing in the evening so had to stop and see for himself what was going on. A couple who were on their way to volunteer at Equitable Giving Circle who were themselves building owners in the area. These ladies had started a business with $200 to their name and it did so well that they were able to buy two buildings in the industrial area which they planned to use as their retirement funds. They tried to convince my building neighbor he was working too hard and should retire. I shared a couple pictures of the burnage from earlier and we speculated about whether this was intentional to get insurance money or not.

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I walked up the street to grab a beer and debrief this odd day.

I asked the server if he had seen the fire and he informed me that he was the one who called 911 on it first. Lives across the street and noticed a garbage can fire in the middle of the night. Thought that doesn’t look right and called it in. 15 minutes later the whole building was in flames. His theory is the fire department let it go to get rid of the known fire hazard.

Finished my beer headed back towards the spectacle. The sun had set bringing a new strange sight, a deep bonfire continuing to burn into the night.

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Such a strange, calm, controlled scene of destruction and chaos. Quiet, burning, destruction in the middle of a city that buzzes on. People stopped and drawn in for a moment before continuing on their way. An arson inspector is already on scene. Insurance, arson, fire code, demolition permits. And a blazing building fire that we had to just let burn.

What an odd world we live in.

Sister, Auntie, friend, HR enthusiast by day, using writing to make sense of this journey called life.