BISBEE — The cause of a fire that erupted early Wednesday morning and destroyed Bisbee City Hall remains under investigation by the sheriff's department, while local officials are working to relocate public services.
Robert Smith, interim city manager, said temporary offices are being set up at the Cochise County government complex on Melody Lane for some of the city’s functions. He said public meetings of the city council, commissions and boards, will be held in the county Board of Supervisors meeting room at the complex.
“We’re working very hard to try and avoid disrupting the schedule for meetings,” Smith said. “The Supervisors meet in the morning and most of our meetings are in the evening so it works out.”
Police Chief Albert Echave said public safety and public works services are continuing, uninterrupted. He said in the short term, residents with questions about city government can contact the police department at (520) 432-2261. For questions on public works matters, the city is directing calls to its wastewater treatment plant at (520) 432-3737.
“It’s important to understand that public safety and public works are fully functional and continue to provide public services,” Echave said.
Firefighters rescued most of the city’s records, staging an operation to recover computer servers that were located on the first floor of the building. Interim Fire Chief George Castillo reported that after about an hour on the scene, he assembled a team of four firefighters to enter the burning building and bring out the computer equipment.
“Those servers are up and running here at the police department this afternoon and wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the efforts of the firefighters,” Smith said.
Early morning blaze
Castillo said his department immediately called for support from neighboring fire departments after arriving at the scene, around 1 a.m.
“We especially wanted to get the Douglas department to respond because they have a ladder truck,” Castillo said. “I can tell you that the walls of the building are still standing because we had that ladder truck on the scene.”
Firefighters from Naco, San Jose, Fry, Whetstone, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Palominas joined the City of Bisbee in helping knock down the fire.
Castillo said firefighters entered the building and moved toward the second floor where they encountered intense flames that “blew out the roof.”
“We lost some equipment,” he said. “On the second floor, once the fire got into the false ceiling and started to move, we assumed a defensive position and left a hose behind.”
Sheriff Mark Dannels said his agency is investigating the cause of the fire and, until that review is complete, the burned-out building will be fenced off and will be treated like a crime scene. Sheriff’s Fire Investigator, Detective John Monroe is conducting the investigation, he said.
Smith said documents lost in the fire include maps and financial reports that were prepared in anticipation of an upcoming audit.
“We still have the information, but assembling that information is going to take some time,” he said.
Two vaults inside the burned-out building may still be intact, protecting valuable historic documents and past financial records maintained by the city. He said firefighters indicated the top side of the vaults did not appear to be damaged.
“We have to wait until the investigation of the scene is completed and we get a structural engineer in there to determine if the building is safe,” Smith said.
Chief Castillo said Wednesday at 4 p.m. that the fire is “under control,” but not completely extinguished.
“There are still places inside the building that are smoldering. There are still hot spots,” Castillo said.
Smith emphasized that no cause has been determined for the fire. He confirmed that remodeling work was being done on the second floor of the building for the past several weeks. The building was used Tuesday night for a city commission meeting.
Cochise County Administrator Ed Gilligan said Bisbee has the full support of county resources in recovering from the catastrophe. At a planning meeting Wednesday, Gilligan was joined by county IT staff members, Facilities Director Jay Powell, Emergency Response Director Norm Sturm and other county representatives.
A devastating loss
Doug Dunn, the mayor pro tem of the Bisbee City Council, said the fire is a “devastating” loss for the community. He reported that Mayor David Smith is expected to return to Bisbee Thursday morning, after recently traveling to Australia.
Dunn said the building was constructed in 1909 as the headquarters of the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company. The building was an important part of the city’s effort to earn recognition on the National Historical Register, he said.
“I believe it was the first poured concrete building in the state,” Dunn said.
Castillo said residents in the immediate area of city hall woke up without electricity or water pressure Wednesday morning. He said efforts to pour as much water as possible on the fire resulted in a significant drop in water pressure throughout the entire city.
“That’s one reason we had to also have water tenders at the scene, because we encountered some water pressure problems trying to get more water onto the fire,” he said.
Bisbee Public Works, the state Department of Public Safety, Southwest Gas, Arizona Public Service, Arizona Water and Freeport McMoRan were also on scene Wednesday helping contain the fire.
They were joined by dozens of Bisbee residents who, before police tape was put up around 8:30, milled around the scene in disbelief at the site.
”I just can’t believe the destruction,” said Scott Kranzeler, who had originally thought the haze in the air was fog. He hadn’t heard any sirens that morning, but soon caught word of the fire at city hall.
Janice Bolduc was mourning the fate of the structure, saying it was an iconic building for the city’s Warren District.
”It’s so sad, it breaks my heart,” she said.
Steve Burnett, a restoration architect who lives in Old Bisbee, said he heard about the fire from a friend. He said he hopes the city can rebuild the structure and not lose such an important building in the neighborhood.
”It would be a shame for this to be a parking lot instead of city hall in the Warren District,” he said.
Marcia Gibbons has lived two houses down from the building for 13 years. She was woken up sometime between 1:30 and 2 a.m. by her cat, who was meowing loudly. It was only then that she smelled the smoke.
Gibbons, whose late husband was a police officer and who had lived for years along the San Andreas fault in California, said her first instinct was to pack and run. Though that proved unnecessary, she said it's still lucky the fire hadn't spread to other buildings.
"If there had been any wind at all ... holy cow," Gibbons said.
Looking at the charred ruins of the building Wednesday morning, she was uncertain of what would become of the structure now. The city didn't have much money before this, she said, so she wasn't sure how they could afford the necessary repairs.
"I'm no expert, but I can't imagine that it's salvageable," she said.