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UPDATE | Sunlight Beach fire destroys one house, damages another

Firefighters pour water on a Sunlight Beach house that caught fire Monday morning. The fire also spread to another house next door. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Firefighters pour water on a Sunlight Beach house that caught fire Monday morning. The fire also spread to another house next door.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

BAYVIEW — The owners of two summer houses at Sunlight Beach are pondering what to do next after fire destroyed one home and gutted the other Monday morning.

“It was a very happy cabin,” said Victoria Larson of Seattle, who with her husband, Gary, owns the gutted house. “We had lots of good times there, with lots of kids, lots of dogs, lots of very happy experiences.”

“We’re very good friends,” she added, referring to the McKinstry family, owners of the house next door, where the fire started. “We’re devastated for them.”

More than 20 firefighters and emergency personnel responded to the fire, which was reported at about 8:30 a.m. Monday.

No one was in either house at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported, officials said.

Black smoke was visible for miles in the bright chilly air as the fire engulfed the house at 2450 Sunlight Beach Road owned by the McKinstrys of Bellevue and Seattle, then spread to the Larson house next door at 2456.

Mike Cotton, deputy chief of Island County Fire District 3, said investigation showed the fire in the McKinstry house was probably electrical, and may have started with a baseboard heater on the water side of the living room.

A third house at 2446, on the other side of the McKinstry property and owned by Drew and Delores Smith, of Bellevue, incurred some slight exterior damage, Cotton said.

Insurance investigators have yet to determine the cost of the loss, but beachfront properties in the area have been routinely assessed at more than $1 million each.

Dean Olson was in the neighborhood shutting off the water to his summer house at 2441 Sunlight Beach Road when he noticed the fire and called 911.

“I looked over and saw smoke, then flames started pouring out the front window,” Olson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

He said his first thought was to try to get into the house and attempt to put out the fire, but was cautioned by officials to stay clear.

Joe McKinstry, of Seattle, whose 94-year-old father Robert has been coming to Sunlight Beach since he was 15, visited the scene Monday.

“There’re a lot of memories that got fried yesterday,” McKinstry said Tuesday.

“Everybody’s been extremely supportive. It’s tough, but we need to get back to basics,” he added. “It’s not our primary residence, nobody got injured and nobody’s out in the street. We’d love to rebuild.”

He said the original cabin was built in 1938 and had been remodeled in 1965. The family acquired it in 1983.

McKinstry said a number of family members used the one-bedroom beach house through the years, and that a nephew had stayed there this past weekend. He said there was a small space heater in the house, but investigators said it had been unplugged.

“I just feel awful that our house took out our next door neighbors’ house,” he added.

His father, Robert McKinstry, of Bellevue said of the family’s loss on Tuesday: “It’s a landmark as far as we’re concerned. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do.”

Larson said she would visit the scene on Tuesday, and then decide what to do with her damaged three-bedroom house, which she and her husband bought when it was a fishing cabin and have owned for 35 years.

She said the house had been remodeled a couple of times, the last time about four years ago.

“It’s the last of the close neighborhoods, like in the 1950s,” Larson said. “We’re kind of all in it together at the beach. If one person has a problem, we all help out”

Cotton said all available Fire District 3 volunteers responded to the fire, and were assisted by units from Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue.

He said a slight wind helped to spread the flames from one house to the other. He said water was plentiful for firefighting, but that when it froze because of chilly temperatures, it created hazardous footing for the crew.

Cotton said the Larson house incurred some interior damage as firefighters attempted to get to flames spreading between its two layers of roof.

He said the nature of the neighborhood, with houses only a few feet apart on small lots, makes firefighting particularly tricky.

“They all meet county code,” Cotton said. “But you can see how close they are. Then they build wooden fences and stack firewood in between. That’s a tremendous amount of fuel between those buildings, if one catches fire.”

He said another factor is that many of the houses sit empty for several months of the years, with only scattered full-time residents to keep an eye on them.

“We were there as quick as we could,” Cotton said. “But by the time someone can see smoke, the fire’s getting bigger and bigger pretty quickly.”

He said that about 10 years ago, a similar fire occurred at Sunlight Beach, this one involving three houses.

“That was a case of big houses, small lots and high winds,” he said. “It was a mess.”

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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