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Fire Guts Salon in Historic Area of Ventura

November 12, 1998|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — A morning blaze gutted a downtown hair salon and severely damaged three surrounding businesses in a historic stretch of Main Street on Wednesday, sending stacks of black smoke above the city and littering sidewalks with ash.

Dozens of people stopped on the soot-strewn 400 block of East Main to gawk at the flames that engulfed Michael Kelley Eco Salon & Day Spa, located just above Joannafina's Mexican Cafe, Ventura County Business Machines and the Book Mall of Ventura. The fire caused an estimated $1.4 million in damage.

Sixty firefighters were called to douse the flames in hopes of containing the damage before it spread into neighboring buildings along the city's main avenue, peppered with dozens of restaurants, knickknack shops and coffeehouses.

The fire began about 9 a.m. when many merchants were opening their businesses. Firefighters believe that the blaze may have started in the kitchen of Joannafina's and quickly spread through a vent to an attic above the businesses.

Salon co-owner Kelley Gaston said about 20 employees and customers had already filled the 5,200-square-foot shop when he noticed smoke filtering into his second-floor office.

"I ran downstairs and I could see the flames," Gaston said as he stared at his burning business. He said he called 911.

Employee Rose Latourell said she grabbed a fire extinguisher, but the blaze was moving too fast.

"I dropped it and said, 'Everybody get out of the salon!' " she said. "We had 10 minutes to get out. I couldn't see--there was so much smoke."

Customers and stylists bolted from the building, some with rollers and half-completed perms, Latourell said.

When firefighters entered the burning structure, flames were so intense in the upstairs salon that Ventura Fire Capt. Pat Farrell's goggles warped. At one point, flames flashed across the room toward firefighters, who ran to safety.

"We were lucky to get out of there," he said. "The fire came right over us."

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Gaining access to the fire proved difficult, authorities said. The age of the connected buildings made firefighters wary of the structure's stability. Buildings along that block of Main Street date from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Flames soon caused the salon's roof to collapse, leaving firefighters to douse the blaze from neighboring rooftops or the street.

Firefighters also stood on the other side of the wall connecting the burning building to its next-door neighbor--Nicholby's nightclub--ready to pour water on flames if they reached the pub. But a thick, concrete wall kept the fire from spreading.

Other businesses on the block were forced to close temporarily, however, after Southern California Edison cut power while the blaze was brought under control.

Firefighters from Ventura, Oxnard and the county fire departments extinguished flames about 11 a.m. No one was hurt.

Fire officials say flames destroyed the salon.

Looking at the charred building with tear-dotted cheeks was painter Jacob Whitmore, who last week hung several large canvases in the shop in hopes of selling them to salon customers.

"I had over 15 years worth of my work in there," he said. "My beautiful body of work. . . . I guess I'll start over, continue to create. That's the only thing I can do."

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Although flames caused some loss at Joannafina's, the bulk of the damage to the restaurant and neighboring business machines store was from water and smoke, authorities said. Soot and water also spilled into the Book Mall of Ventura, damaging shelves of reading material.

"The worst three things for a bookstore are fire, water and smoke," said Jan Nevelle, who owns the store with his wife, Diane. "And right now, the carpet in there is just flooded."

Onlookers helped as the Nevelles scurried in and out of the store hauling books. Nevelle estimated that some of the novels, including an original Dick and Jane book, were worth as much as $5,000.

Firefighters tried to protect the reading material, throwing tarps on several stacks of books.

Damage to the building is estimated at $600,000, while damage to the contents is set at $850,000.

Although the building is within the city's downtown redevelopment district, money for repairing businesses gutted by the fire won't come from redevelopment funds, according to city officials.

"Redevelopment is not designed as an emergency backup funding source," said Everett Millais, Ventura's community development director.

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The city was not considering a project on that stretch of Main, Millais said. In addition, the new multiplex movie theater has exhausted most of the city's redevelopment funds.

Downtown Community Council member Debbie Giles, however, said her organization is planning to hold fund-raisers to help businesses with cleanup and repairs.

"We plan to rally behind them so they don't feel so hard hit," she said. "They're going to need a lot of extra hands right now."

Investigators say they expect to know the cause of the fire and pinpoint where it started by today.

Looking at the burned-out building later in the morning, Latourell commented on the uncertainty of her future now that the salon is gone.

"We were busy, busy, busy and then this happens," she said. "It's so depressing. It's the saddest thing that ever happened to me."

*

Times staff writers Daryl Kelley and Tracy Wilson contributed to this story, along with Times Community News reporters Pamela A. Johnson and Massie Ritsch.

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