Fresno firefighters battle fire at historic home
For the fourth time in a little over a year, the brick and wood of a Fresno home that preceded the Great Depression and two world wars were reduced to ashes.
The Rehorn Home – built around 1906 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places – caught fire around 5 p.m. on Monday. The Fresno Fire Department dispatched more than 60 firefighters to battle the blaze, but the 5,022-square-foot home burned to the ground.
Fresno Fire Capt. Tim Fulmer said firefighters tried to save the old home-turned-office building, but they worried the floors would collapse.
“It was too dangerous for our crews to be inside,” he said at the scene.
The smoke gave way to flames, which eventually spread through the entire home. The blaze was visible from Highway 180 several miles away. Neighboring homes and apartments had to be evacuated.
On Tuesday, demolition crews finished off what the flames started. The few remaining walls were a danger to the public, Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo said.
Staff members from the Fresno Historical Society collected a few photos and papers from the wreckage. The basement was believed to contain decades of architectural records and documents that are now lost.
“The burning of the historic Rehorn Home is a dreadful loss to the community,” society spokeswoman Ruth Lang said Tuesday.
Lang said the materials retrieved from the fire will be returned to the owner’s family.
$338,447The value of the Rehorn Home, according to Fresno County property records.
The cause of the fire isn’t determined. It was used as an office for Fresno architect William E. Patnaude as recently as early last year, but Fresno fire investigators believe it had been vacant for some time. Patnaude is still listed as the owner; he could not be reached for comment.
The home had been vacant before Patnaude and his partner, Allen Y. Lew, purchased it. Students briefly turned it into a commune during that vacancy. The building, one block from St. John’s Cathedral, was used as a convent and home for unwed teenage mothers from 1941-1973. Frank Rehorn, the original owner, was involved with Fresno’s expansion and high-rise building efforts in the early 20th century.
Karana Hattersley-Drayton, historic preservation project manager for the city of Fresno, told The Bee in an email that the Rehorn fire was the fourth burning of a historic downtown Fresno property within the past 17 months.
Fresno Fire Capt. Andrew Noel listed the previous three – all of which had undetermined causes.
On Oct. 16, the Gerlitz Home at 121 U St. nearly burned to the ground. The vacant house had no power or gas, but two squatters were living inside. One had to be rescued. The fire originated in the kitchen. The house was built in 1905.
On Aug. 29, the Collins Home at 1752 L St. was lost. The home had been converted into apartments, but they had been vacant for some time. There was evidence of squatters living inside. The fire began in the basement of the house, which was built in 1905.
The Collins Home was built for James D. Collins, a Confederate army veteran who served on the state Assembly and was elected Fresno County sheriff in 1898.
On Sept. 20, 2014, the Nestel Home at 1527 L St. was destroyed. The home, built in 1897, had also been converted into apartments, and five residents were displaced. The fire started in the attic.
The Nestel, Gerlitz and Rehorn homes were all on the local historic register. City spokesman Mark Standriff said the Collins Home would have been on the register, but its structural integrity did not meet register standards.
Hattersley-Drayton said the recent destruction of these historical homes is alarming.
“Fires in vacant buildings, whether historic or not, are a critical community problem,” she said. “I am meeting with staff today and with our Historic Preservation SWAT Team to try to figure how we can better address this issue.”
Kevin Enns Rempel, director of the Heibert Library at Fresno Pacific University and author of several books on Fresno history and architecture, agreed.
“The problem that needs to be addressed is how we care for vacant buildings that are designated as historic resources,” he said. “It’s very difficult to protect such buildings when they stand vacant.”
Rempel said it will take increased vigilance from both local government and neighbors to keep these properties safe. He also suggested that some sort of incentives be given to prospective buyers to ensure the buildings don’t remain vacant too long.
Standriff said the city already offers an incentive: its lien-waiver program. It will waive up to $100,000 in soft costs – fines, late fees, etc. – attached to vacant properties. The program has led to successful renovation projects throughout Fresno since its establishment in early 2014, he added.
City officials also are concerned with the vacant house fire trend, Standriff said. These homes are required to be maintained under local ordinances, and he urged anyone who sees any activity in a vacant home to call police immediately.
“Everyone needs to work together to improve public safety,” he said.