Four-alarm fire burns old Sunny Jim plant


by KING 5 News

Posted on September 20, 2010 at 2:17 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 21 at 7:02 AM

SEATTLE - A four-alarm fire in the old Sunny Jim plant on Airport Way South in Seattle Monday caused a ten mile traffic backup on Southbound Interstate 5.

The fire started on the second floor just before 2 p.m. Flames burned through several walls of the two-story building. Thick black smoke could be seen for miles.

Neighbors to the north of the fire were evacuated.

"The police came in and asked us to evacuate the building, so we just shut her down and sent everybody home," said Art Clark, who manages the John Perrine Company next door.

One lane of southbound lane of I-5 at Spokane St. and the S. Spokane St. on-ramp to southbound I-5 were closed for a couple of hours because of the smoke. The State Patrol says driving through smoke is similar to driving through fog. All lanes of I-5 were back open just after 6 p.m.

An estimated 120 firefighters battled the flames. Fire Department spokeswoman Dana Vander Houwen says the fire was fought defensively because the building was empty and engulfed in flames.

"When you go defensive, you pretty much write the building off," said Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean. 

One firefighter was taken to Harborview Medical Center after he was hit by a piece of falling siding. At last report, he was in stable condition.

"They were trying to open up a door so they could get some hose lines in. So, they decided that they thought they could do that. He went inside that zone to try to help do that. Some of the siding came off," said Dean.

Katherine Schubert Knapp, a spokesperson for Seattle's Department of Finance and Administrative Services, said Monday night her department owned the building. Knapp said it had been vacant for years, and as far as she knew. It did not have anything in storage or anything flammable inside.  Knapp says there was "no active use". In fact, her department had asked for funding several years ago to tear down the structure, but was denied.

"They kept the lights on 24/7 to keep the tweakers out from stealing the power lines and the stuff that's in the building," said Clark.

The cause of the fire is not yet known.

The two-story plant made the peanut butter that carried the Sunny Jim name. "Sunny Jim" was a cartoon character created in 1902 for a cereal advertising campaign.

The plant was heavily damaged by a previous fire in 1997 that was caused by roofing repairs. That fire destroyed the iconic red Sunny Jim sign that had been visible from I-5 for decades.