Massive blaze razes former K-Mart building in Argay Terrace

INCLUDES 2 EXCLUSIVE VIDEOS | The plume of smoke could be seen for miles away. Chunks of insulation ash rained down on Parkrose. And, see video of the fire that just wouldn’t stay extinguished …

Firefighters work at the shuttered K-Mart building along NE 122nd Avenue all day, and into the evening after a massive fire erupts inside it.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Built in 1971, the sprawling K-Mart store along NE 122nd Avenue at Sandy Boulevard was considered “destination shopping” for many outer East Portland residents – until new owner Sears shut it down in 2018.

But, after fire ripped through the building on Wednesday morning, July 19, the many ideas that have been floated for the 117,966 sq. ft. empty building at 12350 NE Sandy Boulevard, went up in smoke.

Take a look at this ash plume, somehow captured by a Portland Fire & Rescue photographer.

Challenges getting to the fire
Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) crews dispatched to the fenced property at 6:25 a.m. on July 19th first had to use saws and power bolt-cutters to get through the heavy steel pipe gate and the locked chain link fence – just to enter the property.

Next was the job of locating the closest fire hydrants – but that went quickly, because those had already been scoped out and mapped – because PF&R had previously identified this giant building as “likely to burn”.

A building “likely to burn” Indeed! PF&R image

But, because of relatively few nearby hydrants, and the need for a massive amount of water volume and pressure to spray from the top of the PF&R Ladder Trucks’ aerial nozzles, fire engines “daisy-chained” together to provide a water supply system.

At first, the main fire appeared to be in the southern half of the building; but it quickly spread.

Further complicating the firefighting effort was that all the structure’s entrances had been boarded up. Crews used power saws to cut openings in an attempt to enter the structure; but were soon commanded to step away from the weakening building.

This short video, shot by Parkrose resident Joe Rossi, displays the overpowering fire:


Pumping water through large-diameter water lines, aerial turret nozzles pour hundreds of gallons of water on the fire each minute. PF&R image

Turns into a four-alarm fire
What was dispatched as a two-alarm fire was soon increased to a third alarm, and shortly thereafter a fourth alarm, as crews stationed all over East Portland were summoned to go fight this fire. This brought some 100 firefighters and additional staff to the scene.

“These crews were brought in so we would have enough workforce here in the event an active ember might be rise in the fire and smoke column, and land on a nearby building or field to start a new spot fire,” PF&R Public Information Officer Rick Graves explained.

Ash blankets the area

At Rossi Farms, Joe Rossi snapped a photo at 7:36 a.m., showing large chunks of ash – most likely burnt insulation — on the front lawn of his family’s heritage home.

At 8:21 a.m. Molly Voorhees Tweeted, “We just have so much ash in our yard at SE 121st Avenue and Morris Street” – about 20 blocks southwest of the fire.

About 50,000 telephone customers in the area were sent a “Reverse 911 call” to warn residents to shelter in place, and to close their windows to prevent choking smoke from entering their homes.

Much of the fire by this point is extinguished, but smoke still boils from the ruined building. PF&R image

About two hours into the firefighting, most of the flames were extinguished. “We began ‘fire-watch-style tactics’ – having companies on-scene throughout the day operating the aerial master streams, and keeping the fire from continuing or growing in the building,” Graves said.

Frequent hangout of ‘campers’
In late morning, Graves told reporters that the vacant building had been frequently used as an unauthorized homeless shelter.

“The owners of the building had attempted to fortify the boundary of the property to reduce this unauthorized use by encircling the property with 8-foot tall Cyclone fencing, and placing cement blocks and Jersey barriers along NE 122 to limit use of the parking lot as well,” explained Graves.

Although the building is boarded up, and an eight-foot tall chain-link fence surrounds the property, squatters made homes inside it, officials say.

“The fence was still able to be penetrated, and people were obviously still going inside this structure,” Graves told reporters. “Again, we didn’t see anybody leave; and so far, we have no evidence that anybody was in the structure and started this with an unsanctioned fire.

“But certainly, that’s on the minds of our investigators, as they’re going through the process of establishing cause,” Graves acknowledged.

Fire flares up 12 hours later

Fire reignites on the north side of the building, sending thick clouds of smoke into the air that evening.

After covering an event in Parkrose that evening, we drove to the site to survey the damage. Several fire engines were still on the property; and one of them was hooked up and ready to pump, on the north side of the building, facing NE Sandy Boulevard.

Inside only open gate, at the north end of the building, smoke was still rising from the structure.

A firefighter opens the valve on the engine-mounted turret nozzle and again begins to put of the fire.

At 7:58 p.m., the smoke rising from the roof became thicker and darker as open flames reappeared and leapt into the air.

The engine stationed on that side of the building was running, but unoccupied. But moments later, a firefighter clambered up onto the rig and aimed a turret truck-mounted nozzle at the spot, sending water up and onto the roof.

Watch a firefighter again spray water onto the building, as a fire rekindles about 12 hours after it started:

The fire rekindled in another area of the building until a firefighter sprayed it down.

The “fire watch” at the building continued into the night and through the next day. “We’ll be sitting on this one until tomorrow,” Graves commented.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation; the fire site is enormous. If you have information about the start of this fire, please call the Portland Fire Arson Hotline at (503) 823-3473, and refer to Incident No. 23-77886.

The location’s future an open question
The property is currently owned by RFC Joint Venture, and the owner’s address is listed at the building’s location. Neighbors say that RFC Joint Venture is actually part of a New Jersey based real estate company, Garden Homes – owned by the Wilf family, who, under various names have possessed the property since 1986.

Now that it’s been ravaged by fire, neighbors wonder what the ownership will do with this building or its property.

More recently, residents of the Argay Terrance and Parkrose neighborhoods have been in contention with the property owner’s plans to create a freight warehouse there, and lease it to Prologis, a merchandise distribution company.

The neighbors say that they’re concerned about an increase in truck traffic, and diesel pollution that could arise from that use.

Perhaps the fire could actually assist those plans by destroying the existing structure aid advance the construction of the new distribution center.

© 2023 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™



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