Update: The Seattle Fire Department said Tuesday afternoon that the cause of the fire was likely electrical, though the official cause will be labeled undetermined.
Duke Nguyen had just arrived at his pho restaurant on North Market Street in Ballard when he smelled smoke.
Wondering where the smell was coming from, he tried turning on the kitchen fans to clear the air.
Then he walked outside and saw flames and smoke pouring out of neighboring businesses, Nguyen recounted later. He ran back into his restaurant, Pho Big Bowl, where about four employees and 15 customers were inside. “I’m sorry, but the building is on fire,” he told them as he opened the door. “Please, I don’t know what will happen, please leave.”
Pho Big Bowl was one of five Ballard businesses severely damaged Monday by a blaze that was fought by nearly two-thirds of Seattle’s on-duty firefighters, who worked for more than three hours to bring it under control.
After monitoring the scene for hot spots overnight, crews were expected to be back Tuesday morning attempting to determine the cause of the blaze as well as the full extent of the damage.
At least four of the five businesses — La Isla restaurant, Supercuts, Kitchen N Things, and Octo Designs & Jewelers — were expected to be total losses, according to fire officials.
A fund has been set up to help them. The advocacy group Ballard Alliance established the GoFundMe page and donated the first $5,000, hoping to raise at least $25,000. More than $9,000 had been pledged by early Tuesday morning.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our neighborhood and the loss is felt by the entire Ballard community, ” Ballard Alliance Executive Director Mike Stewart said in a statement announcing the fund.
The fire in the 2300 block of Northwest Market Street was called in at 12:02 p.m. Monday, when someone at the Supercuts smelled smoke, said Kristin Tinsley, spokeswoman for the Seattle Fire Department. Just after 3:30, fire officials said it was under control. At the height of the blaze, 150 firefighters, or about 65% of Seattle Fire’s on-duty resources, were responding.
Firefighters initially tackled the fire from the roof and cut holes to release toxic gases and smoke, but after about an hour they had to get off the roof due to the risk of collapse. They shifted to defensive operations, with multiple ladder trucks aiming their hoses at the blaze. One firefighter was taken to Harborview Medical Center with minor injuries.
Strong winds pushed smoke through the neighborhood, leading onlookers to shift to different areas to continue watching the firefighting efforts as the wind changed. Residents within a mile of the fire were urged to close windows and doors to avoid smoke exposure, Tinsley said.
James Loya, whose apartment overlooks the building where the blaze started, nervously watched the wind whip the fire back into flames from time to time. He’d gotten his two dogs out of his apartment but was still worried about his belongings.
“It could easily spread in this wind and take the whole next block,” he said.
Once the flames died down midafternoon, Tinsley said crews would likely be there through Monday night to make sure the fire didn’t reignite.
Seattle Public Utilities warned that hydrant use due to the fire could result in “discolored water” for homes and businesses in the area, caused by internal pipe rust and sediment getting stirred up. The water was still safe to use, the utility said.
The fire also closed down streets and caused transit delays in the area, on King County Metro routes 17, 18, 29 40 and 44. Metro was operating a shuttle to serve the Ballard Senior Center. Riders could board at 20th Avenue Northwest or at the senior center.
Standing outside the building, which firefighters were still applying water to around 4 p.m., Nguyen said he’s glad everyone is safe. He had to hold his breath when he ran back into the smoke to grab his iPad and cash inside the register. He isn’t sure the extent of the damage to his restaurant, but he knows the roof collapsed.
A firewall between the jeweler and pho restaurant prevented the fire from spreading to other adjacent businesses.
“If that hadn’t been there, this fire would have spread to all of these buildings,” Tinsley said. The pho restaurant was affected because “fire was pouring over” the wall, she said.
When Bob Berridge, a family counselor and owner of Ballard Counseling, heard a fire had broken out on the other end of the block, he thought about the treasured family photographs in his office. His office wasn’t told to evacuate, but with the heavy wind pushing flames down the block, he didn’t want to chance it. Berridge went to his office and filled a backpack with photos of his grandparents and children, as well as some heavily annotated and beloved books.
“It’s interesting to have to go in and make a decision about what’s important,” he said, clutching his backpack close while standing across from the fire.
Seattle Times staffers Amanda Snyder, Andy Bao, Michelle Baruchman and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.