The Ministorage Fire
Juneau Empire Article #1

Fire causes $1 million in damage 
June 3, 2002

Web posted Monday, June 3, 2002

photo: local

All he owned: Derek Jenson looks through the remains of his belongings this morning at the Juneau Self-Storage building on Commercial Boulevard that burned Sunday. Jenson moved almost all his belongings into the unit a month ago prior to moving out of town. He did not have insurance.

Fire causes $1 million in damage
Firefighters dodge bullets while extinguishing storage-unit blaze

Derek Jenson can fit the contents of his life into a duffel bag after a fire fueled by propane, rounds of ammunition and boxes of memories ripped through Juneau Self-Storage early Sunday.

Firefighters arrived on Commercial Boulevard near Lemon Creek around 5 a.m. after police noticed smoke coming from the area.

No one was hurt in the blaze, but firefighters dodged exploding bullets and shrapnel from 3,000 rounds of ammunition and two propane cylinders stored in the building.

The building and much of its contents, including a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle, were totaled, sending the estimated damage "well into the millions," fire officials said today. Renters scoured over and dug through still-smoking remains Sunday and today, hoping to salvage household goods, photographs and some hope that anything would be left.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined, but officials said separate fires may have started in more than one unit. The fire marshal is investigating.

Jenson, one of about 150 storage-unit renters, was on his way to work at the Alaskan Brewing Co. today when he saw the twisted, sooty remains of the building and realized his unit was among the casualties.

"I lost everything I have except a duffel bag of my clothes," said Jenson. "I was in the process of moving. I've just been in there digging, looking for pictures mostly, but pretty much it's a lost cause.

"I guess it'll make moving easier. I'll only have a half a car-load of stuff now. It's one way of keeping it simple. It's just stuff I guess. ... I don't think this has really hit me yet since I still have a sense of humor about it."

Firefighters arrived to smoke billowing from the eaves of the building, said Volunteer Fire Chief Max Mielke. He sent the first team of firefighters into the winding corridors of the structure, but thick smoke and searing fire drove them out.

"They got to the far end of the building and saw fire along the ceiling and it was obvious it had been burning for awhile," said Mielke. "They could hear the fire burning in the attic. We cut two large holes in the roof to try to vent the building to force some of the smoke out.

"But even after we did that, the heat was so intense, we had to pull the guys out. Some of their face shields were melting."

Firefighters climbed to the roof to attack the blaze and were pulled off just in time.

"They weren't off the roof but one minute when right where they had been standing, it collapsed, just caved right in," he said.

More than 50 volunteer and paid firefighters were on scene. Some attempted to salvage belongings from the units while others drenched nearby buildings to keep the fire from spreading.

"None of the fire doors had been closed in the storage facility so the fire had free rein of the place and just went right through it," Mielke said. "It even ate its way through the Sheetrock in the attic, which is used as a fire stop."

The heat was so intense it melted the vinyl siding off Carpet Source, a neighboring business, he said.

Mielke said the fire heated 3,000 rounds of ammunition stored in one of the units and two small propane cylinders stored in another, sending a barrage of bullets and shrapnel into the crowd of firefighters.

"They were bouncing off buildings and our trucks," he said. "One of our guys did get hit in the helmet with a piece of shrapnel, which put a pretty big dent in his helmet. He wasn't hurt though. ... All we could do was make sure our face masks were on and stay low while we fought the fire. It kept up for a good 20 minutes."

After the main blaze was extinguished, a cleanup crew from the fire department brought in an excavator to uncover small fires still burning and clear out some of the rubble. People with belongings in the units started arriving to see what had happened and pick through what was left of their things.

"Women were crying over their lost wedding dresses and people just looked stunned," said Eli Hanlon, a security guard hired to protect what was left. "It made it worse when they brought the excavator in here and bulldozed over the debris in these units. So many people lost so much of everything. There are still bullets imbedded in the roofs of these buildings over here ­ it was horrendous."

Renter Cal Reichert said he and his wife lost the contents of a furnished home in the fire. The two stored all of their belongings, including furniture and most of their clothing, in the unit while their new home was being built.

"We lost all of it, all of our pictures of everything we've done together, everything," said Reichert. "Since we moved out of our apartment, we canceled our renters' insurance so none of it is covered. My wife was able to find her grandma's pearls in a drawer. At least we have those. At least that's something. ... I guess we'll have to do some major garage-saling."

Juneau-Self Storage Manager Marna McGonegal was not at her downtown office and did not return a message left on her business cell phone by the Empire's mid-day deadline.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at [email protected].