A String of “Intentionally Set” Fires Hits Structures Around Rainier Avenue South

by Jack Russillo

A string of recent late-night fires around Rainier Avenue South have been deemed as intentionally set, Seattle Fire Department officials say. 

The fire that scorched a construction site with four three-story buildings under construction on the 1000 block of Sturgus Avenue South around 5:40 a.m. Thursday morning was the ninth fire in the area since mid-July and the second in a matter of hours in the north Beacon Hill neighborhood. A few blocks to the south, on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and 23rd Avenue South, the Rainier Farmers Market was set ablaze around 3:15 a.m., for the third time in a single week and the fourth time this summer.

“The reason why that fire is significant is because it was the fourth time in the last 30 days that the location has been targeted,” said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins. “Someone intentionally set a fire at that location.”

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins addresses media during a Thursday afternoon press conference in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Not including the most recent fire on August 20, which is still being assessed, SFD estimates that the cumulative damage done by the previous three fires at the Rainier Farmers Market is valued at $165,250. The fourth and largest fire at the Rainier Farmers Market forced owner Kevin Nguyen to close up his business and lay off his employees. 

“The whole thing was burned down … Everything was just burnt ash,” Nguyen said. “I’m devastated — I’ve put a lot of time and work and effort into this place.”

The Nguyen family have organized a Go Fund Me campaign to help with repairs to the farmstand.

At the construction site fire on Sturgus Avenue, the damage is estimated to be around $5 million. There have been two other fires set at the Sturgus Avenue property in recent months, including a building fire early in the morning on April 26 that caused an estimated $20,000 in damages and a vehicle fire in front of a neighboring occupied residence on the morning of July 23 that caused a further $50,000 in damages.

At the peak of the Sturgus Avenue blaze, which was a three-alarm fire, fourteen fire engines and four ladder trucks worked to bring down the flames. Over 50% of Seattle’s firefighters responded to the scene to keep the fire contained and prevent it from spreading further. An occupied residence to the left of the fire structure and a condominium building to the right were evacuated upon arrival and smoke from the fire temporarily shut down I-90 in both directions until the fire was deemed contained at around 7:20 a.m. 

In July, there were an additional three fires at the U-Haul Storage of Rainier Valley, a few blocks further south at 2515 Rainier Avenue South. Those three fires, which were all started late at night between July 14 and July 22, totaled an estimated $11,800 in damages.

No members of the public or firefighters sustained any injuries at any of the recent fires.

“In the last 30 days in the area around Rainier and on Beacon Hill, our arson investigators and SPD arson/bomb squad [have] identified ten fires in this area that have been intentionally set,” said Scoggins. “There has also been a number of other fires set in and around Rainier, mostly smaller in nature — trash, debris, and other things like that — that have occurred. There has been an uptick of fire activity in this area. That causes us concern.”

All of the instances of intentionally set fires in the area are currently under investigation by the SFD’s arson investigative team, which works alongside the Seattle Police Department arson/bomb squad to determine the cause and origin of the fires.

To help decrease the risk of more fires in the area, SFD has released a list of fire prevention tips for residents and business owners to follow. To date, SFD has responded to more than 370 fires in 2020.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: The aftermath from a Thursday morning fire that burned buildings in the 1000 block of Sturgus Avenue South in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Photo by Alex Garland.