BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Downtown Bakersfield has been hit with some devastating fires in commercial buildings over the past couple of years. The latest one, at Chester Avenue and 20th Street, is just the latest example.
But from a historian’s perspective, some fires are more devastating than others.
Oh, they burn the same. They just leave scars that linger longer. Two adjacent buildings, each more than a century old, in the 2000 block of Chester Avenue, were destroyed in a three-alarm fire that started around 10:15 p.m. Wednesday night. The flames appeared to be under control around 1:30 a.m., but crews were still at it more than 12 hours later, knocking down flare-ups. Bakersfield Battalion Chief Brian Bowman acknowledged the historical loss.
“Obviously it’s a shame and we’re going to do everything we can on our side to prevent it from happening,” he said. “But as much as we want to save that building, my biggest concern is the safety of our personnel.”
City Building Director Phil Burns said the city already had 13 buildings on its list of unsalvageable structures set for demolition.
“This will be 14 and 15,” he said. “I’m not sure about the corner building. I’ll have to take a quick look at 2001 Chester, but definitely this one because this is an immediate hazard to the public.”
Few of the thousands who drive past them every day may realize it, but both buildings have long colorful histories. Steve Humphreys, a trustee with the Kern County Historical Society, used to walk the downtown beat as a Bakersfield Police officer.
“This building on the corner used to be the Masonic Temple, built in 1890,” he said. “It was three stories tall. It was a beautiful ornate building and then after the quake they took the upper stories off like they did on so many other buildings downtown.”
It’s had many lives. It was the C.M. Stoll and Company harness and saddle shop roughly 1905 to 1909, Security Market in the 1930s and then Thrifty Drug Store for another 30 or 40 years. Next door, the more seriously damaged of the two buildings, was the Weill Ferguson Building, built 1909. Ferguson Apartments on the top, several businesses on the ground floor, including a tamale grotto, Groggs Theater, California Market and for a time, Woody’s Toy Circus.
It survived the 1919 fire that raged just a block or so down Chester Avenue and of course the 1952 earthquake – only to be done in by what appears to be arson.
A neighboring business owner who didn’t want to go on camera told KGET he often saw vagrants entering the structure through the alley by climbing a fire ladder stored eight feet off the ground and hopping through an opening in the gap between the building and the old phone company building behind it.
Kern County Museum Director Mike McCoy – who has helped preserve many historic buildings and artifacts – says the city fire department has to be more forthcoming in its fight against arson.
“We’re having a rash of arson fires in Bakersfield proper and some pretty significant homes have gone up, some of them are historical,” he said, “and I think we really need the city and the fire department … to amp up their public information about how the investigations are going, if they’re arson, and really get in front of the camera and give the community some assurance that it’s being investigated.”
Humphrey noted the fire department’s challenges.
“They’re overworked, understaffed, just like the police department was, and it’s just impossible,” Humphreys said. “If somebody wants to set fires they’re gonna set fires. You gotta get lucky and you gotta catch them in the act.”
Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales says the city needs to better enforce its existing vacant property ordinance and pass a Chronic Nuisance Property Toolkit that’s been lingering in draft status limbo for two and a half years.
“We have to accelerate this work,” he said. “We have to be far more aggressive. If we need more code enforcement officers, let’s get them hired. If we need more city attorneys to take legal action, let’s retain those attorneys. Clearly, and with good reason, frustration is mounting as Bakersfield loses one historic building after another.”
The great Bakersfield fire of 1889 wiped out this city block and much of downtown. Ironic that now, in 2022, the very same corner, wiped out by fire once again.
“They can’t sit there empty with no power to them and start on fire,” Humphreys said. “They’re just not going to do that. So somebody – there’s probably a fire bug somewhere that’s getting this going.”