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Fire destroys Chapel by the Sea funeral home in Fort Bragg

The only funeral home on the Mendocino Coast was destroyed after a two-alarm fire started on the second story of the historic Fort Bragg building that houses Chapel by the Sea.

Dispatchers received the first report of smoke at the 6,800-square-foot red brick fronted structure at approximately 1:47 p.m. on Saturday. Within minutes, the East Fir Street building was fully engulfed, with flames as tall as 20 feet quickly escaping the east-facing windows, according to Adam Dondanville, assistant fire chief of the Fort Bragg Fire Department.

When he arrived, the second floor was overwhelmed by flames.

“It was cooking,” he said. “There was not a whole lot we could do but set up for a defensive fire and prevent it from getting anywhere else.”

At first sight of the fire, Dondanville called for the second alarm. About 25 of the department’s volunteer firefighters and six engines arrived to help. It took crews until about 4:15 p.m. to knock the fire down fully, with mop-up work completed around 6:30 p.m.

The building’s old redwood construction was blamed for intensifying the heat of the fire, which contributed to it spreading and burning the guts of the building so fast, said Dondanville, who oversaw the firefight.

“It was hot, and we had a little difficulty getting to it just because we couldn’t make entry,” he said. “On a normal fire, you send people up, and try to vent the roof to get the heat out and contain it, but with the severity of the fire it was just too dangerous to put guys up on the roof.”

Damage figures were still being calculated Monday.

The structure, which included a chapel and separate area for funeral services, was considered a total loss.

Kevin Stiles, who with business partner Dan Roberts bought the company in 1999, was thankful no one was injured in the fire but struggled to describe its impact. Roberts lost his Paradise home in the Camp fire in November while Stiles’ Chico residence was threatened. Other businesses the two own in Redding were also affected by July’s Carr fire.

“It’s disturbing that fires just keep getting us,” said Stiles. “It’s strange.”

Chapel by the Sea had operated at the property since the late 1930s. The owners had recently spent about $15,000 to remodel a second-story room, installing new double-pane windows, replacing flooring and painting the walls so a company manager could live there while running the business. The manager was out of town during the fire and at least one of her cats was killed in the blaze, but perhaps all three.

Also lost in the fire were several display caskets and supplies in a business office. A conjoined area of the building housing the mortuary’s cooler did not burn, sparing three bodies awaiting embalming or cremation. As many as eight urns filled with ashes were damaged, but their cremains accounted for, Stiles said.

A worker reported hearing a hissing noise after plugging in a vacuum on the second story, Stiles said. When he turned back toward the wall, it was immersed in flames.

The cause of the fire, which Dondanville confirmed originated on the second floor, remains under investigation.

He said nothing so far suggested it was suspicious in nature.

Stiles was steadfast in his commitment to reconstruct the business, which has existed under various names and different locations around Fort Bragg since 1893 before moving into the local landmark that dates to at least the early 20th century. In the meantime, he said Chapel by the Sea remains open to the region’s grieving families looking for burial services. It will operate out of some adjacent buildings on the property that were saved while a long-term plan is determined.

“We’re not going to let this stop us from serving the people of Fort Bragg,” he said. “We’ll make sure we’re there for anyone that needs us. We will take care of our community and rebuild.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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