The effects of the Jan. 6 fire that destroyed Portage Brewing in Walker are obvious to anyone who walks or drives past Fifth and Michigan, where a gaping hole is all that’s left of the three-story building.
Less than a block away, two other businesses are also dealing with the negative effects of the fire.
Since Jan. 6, Lundrigans, at the corner of Fifth and Minnesota, and Tiger Lily’s, on Fifth across from Portage Brewing, have been closed.
On Jan. 7, the Monday after the fire, Lundrigans owner Nancy Freeman and her staff prepared to open the store.
“Within 15 minutes, everyone was having a reaction from breathing in the air,” she described. “Eyes burning and watering; light-headedness; bad taste in your mouth; throat scratchy.
“I told everyone to get out of the store and contacted my insurance agent and company to tell them that we may have a situation!”
During the fire, unknown toxins had been drawn into the store through the furnace’s air intake at the rear of the building.
Freeman immediately closed the store. On the advice of her insuror, she contacted Servicemaster professional cleaners.
“Servicemaster knows how to clean smoke and soot, but the representative said they were not equipped to deal with whatever was going on in our store,” she related.
The next day, the same thing happened. Freeman closed the store and again contacted her insurance company. She told them that until someone could find out what was going on in the store, she would not take the chance that someone would get sick. By later that afternoon, the insurance company had contacted an air quality company to come and test the store.
It took a week for the AQ expert to arrive from Seattle, and test results took another two or three weeks.
The results finally came back Feb. 4
“The entire store is contaminated,” Freeman said. “They believe the main culprit to be the vinyl siding on Portage Brewery that melted and burned.”
What happens next is up to the insurance company and the AQ firm. Freeman has no idea how long the process will take but was told by the AQ company that it would be a very long process and that the store’s entire inventory must be removed and destroyed.
“It all has to be treated as hazardous waste,” Freeman continued. “As of [Feb. 27], they’re trying to find some place in the Minnesota that will accept it for disposal. We’re at the mercy of the AQ experts. Plus, once the inventory is removed, all porous surfaces in the store have to be treated, which is about 90 percent: the barnwood, wood crates for display, flooring, sheet rock, etc.
“Then the AQ company comes back to re-test; and if that test comes back bad, the store might have to be taken down to the studs.”
The situation is more severe than anyone realizes, she continued.
“Our work hasn’t even begun yet. We will have to document all the contaminated merchandise by matching invoices to photos to ‘prove cost’ for the insurance company, which is a difficult process, when we’re told not to go into the store!”
The inventory will have to be removed before they treat the store. Freeman and her staff will have to work side-by-side with whoever the insuror finds to deal with the contaminated inventory.
Once the contamination was identified, there was no choice but to keep the store closed.
“I had to have a safe working and shopping environment! We knew something was wrong since the 10 people who entered the building that Monday and Tuesday all experienced the same effects.”
Ironically, Freeman went through almost the same situation four years ago at Lundrigans in Dorset, when two adjacent restaurants, Compañeros and The Dorset House, burned down.
The day after the fire, Tiger Lily’s owner Rich Hansen opened the store and found what he thought was smoke had gotten in. He called Servicemaster, which came out to clean the carpet and deodorize the space. All fibrous inventory that might have absorbed smoke smell was removed. But days later, things still didn’t smell right.
“I was concerned about what might be in there,” Hansen said. “Then Nancy called me to say they’d found chemical contaminants at Lundrigan’s.” He contacted his insurance company.
Now Hansen’s insuror is waiting for a copy of the report from Lundrigans insurance company and the AQ firm that did the testing, before he makes any decisions on what to do next.
Tiger Lily’s will remain closed until he is sure it’s not a health issue to be in the store.
“It’d be bad for customers but worse for staff who are in their eight hours a day.”
Hansen has been going in from time to time to check the heat and says the air still doesn’t smell “right.”
“I’d think that almost four weeks after Servicemaster, and with the perfumes and scents in our store, that the smell would be gone ...”
Meanwhile, he’s stuck in limbo, a case of “hurry up and wait.” And although there usually isn’t much revenue coming in at this time of year, “bills still need to be paid!”
Hansen is hoping to get answers soon so the situation can be remedied and Tiger Lily’s can re-open this spring.