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UPDATE: Whidbey jail fire forces prisoner evacuation

The Island County jail caught fire Monday night, forcing prisoners to be sent to a nearby holding area as local firemen dealt with the flames.

There were no direct injuries, but two firefighters were sent to Whidbey General Hospital for observation of smoke inhalation and released after a general check-up.

Around 8 p.m., the Central Whidbey Fire Department was called to the jail.

"The fire was in the downstairs basement of the jail, apparently caused by still-greasy rags auto-igniting in a clothes dryer," said Fire Chief Joe Biller.

County jail personnel tried to extinguish the flames with fire extinguishers but flare-ups continued.

"The biggest concern was the heavy, gray smoke infiltrating through the building, made worse by the shut-down of the ventilation system when the alarm went off," Biller said.

"After the fire itself was out, we used pails and buckets to get the rags out of the dryer," he added

Biller noted that jail administrator Dee Dennis had recently developed an escape plan for just such an event.

"We did a dry walk-through of this scenario only two weeks ago, so we knew what to expect," he said.

Further aiding response was that Monday is the fire department's normal training night and everyone was ready to go.

The department used sophisticated air sampling devices to check for toxic gases.

"None were found and the prisoners returned to their cells after a few hours," Biller said.

Biller added that the investigation into the cause will continue but his sense was the rags weren't clean enough before they were put in the dryer.

He also said that jail staff did an excellent job caring for their prisoners and dealing with the emergency.

The fire disrupted a meeting of the Island County Democrats in the basement of the Island County Annex, the building that houses offices for county workers that sits next to the jail.

Former Sheriff Mike Hawley came into the commissioners' hearing room and asked the group of more than 20 Democrats to leave.

"Lt. Hawley came in the commissioners' hearing room and said, 'I'm afraid you folks have to leave. We have to temporarily relocate prisoners here because there is a fire at the jail,'" recalled Hal Seligson.

As the group gathered outside, they did not see any flames or smoke.

"There was not a lot of bustling going on," Seligson said.

Firefighters in full gear arrived within minutes, he added.

The Democratic Party meeting adjourned to a nearby church to finish their meeting. The displaced included state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, Patricia Terry, a candidate for state representative, and county commissioner candidates Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola.

Dennis was not not scheduled to arrive at the jail until 11 a.m. Tuesday and was unavailable for comment.

Jail supervisor Lt. Steve Timm would not say how many prisoners were moved during the fire nor had he conducted a head count of prisoners by 9:40 a.m. Tuesday.

Michaela Marx Wheatley contributed to this story.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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