The fire that changed the face of Key Center


Rick Sorrels

Editor's Note: A more recent, thorough and accurate account of circumstances surrounding the fire can be found in "The Night Key Center Burned," KP News, Feb. 2020. 

Key Center, long recognized as the commercial hub and unofficial capital of the Key Peninsula, drastically changed on Feb. 4, 1970 when a fire of unprecedented proportion consumed nearly the entire development.

The view of Key Center after the fire destroyed numerous buildings nearly 38 years ago. Photo courtesy KP museum

Reduced to nothing more than ashes lying in a hole in the ground were the grocery store Dominic’s Foods, Visell Lumber and Hardware Co., a lawyer’s office, a barber shop, a liquor store, a butcher shop, freezer and storage units, and an apartment. The tavern across the street and the Shell gas station (currently the KP Smoke and Wine Shop) escaped with scorched paint and burst windows.

Newspaper reports of the time stated the firemen and the seven engines that responded were unable to get close enough to get water on the blaze. Flames were shooting 100 feet into the air, and scorched power poles, melted phone lines, and burned through electric power lines.

Don Olson, a battalion chief for Fire District 16 at the time, lived across the street from the fire. “An explosion that blew the windows out of the building woke me up. I called in to report the fire,” he said. “Within 30 seconds, the phone lines burned through while I was still talking. The heat was intense, like a coke oven. Russ Christine and I had been renting a garage under the building. We lost tools, equipment, and a welder.”

Fire Chief Don Mills said, “The fire started before 3 a.m.; that’s when Don Olson called it in. When I got there at 4 a.m., there wasn’t anything left to save. We concentrated on saving nearby buildings and the power poles. The dry wood, stacked lumber, paint and fuel oils created incredibly intense heat. By 5 a.m. there was nothing left except ashes in a hole in the ground. It was the worst fire the Key Peninsula has ever seen. That same night the lighthouse in Longbranch burned.”

Photo courtesy KP museum

The Key Center Fire Station was a cinder block building east of the fire scene. “When I tried to start the tender, it wouldn’t start, so I had to roll it down the hill to compression-start it to get more water to the fire,” Mills said.

Bud Ulsh, a volunteer fireman who responded, said, “All that was left besides ash was a safe and glass from booze bottles. The fire was so hot that even the sheetrock burned.”

Ross Bischoff drove through Key Center before the sun came up that morning on his way to teach classes at the high school in Port Orchard. “Even after the fire was out, the heat was so intense that you could hardly stand it to drive by the scene,” he said. “I had just purchased a side of beef to store in a freezer unit in the basement under the grocery. I lost it all.”

Joyce Niemann lived less than a half-mile away and was awakened by exploding paint cans. “It was horrible. The sky was all red. My husband and son went down to watch it burn,” she said.

Dominic's Foods and the liquor store were owned and operated by Dominic and Shirley Marietta. Shirley Marietta said, “Remains of a chainsaw indicated that somebody had cut through the wall from the hardware store into the liquor store. Insufficient glass remained to account for all of the liquor bottles in stock. A case of R&R Canadian Whiskey stolen from the liquor store was found under the Purdy Bridge. The thieving arsonist was caught in Oregon, was returned for trial, found guilty, and sentenced.”

The Mariettas' stores were insured, so all their debts were covered. “Kenny Brones, who owned the lumber and hardware store, was not insured. He was hurt bad financially,” Shirley said. “There was a lot of offers from the community to help those impacted by the fire.”

In 1970, a deep and wide ravine ran through Key Center. The west side of the buildings that burned was right up next to the road. The east side was built on stilts. The lumber trucks would drive under the building to unload.

Photo courtesy KP museum

“Brones owned the land. He hired my dad and I to cut trees. We started before the fire occurred, and finished after the fire,” said Art Hinzman. “When we were done, Brones used his earthmoving equipment to cut down the vertical hillside east of the fire scene and filled in the ravine. There are culverts all under Key Center to handle the water that used to flow through the ravine.”

Shirley said that a new grocery store and lumber and hardware store opened about one year after the fire under different owners. “We didn’t go back to the grocery business. Instead, one week after the fire, we reopened the liquor store across the street in the only available space, where it still exists today, managed by my daughter."

The firemen saved the cabinet shop, which later became the KP Trading Post, and recently reopened as a mini-mall called The Landing. The Shell station later relocated to new facilities diagonally across the intersection, which became Windermere Key Realty and last month became RE/MAX Red Door. The 1970 restaurant remains a restaurant, until recently operating under the name Huckleberry Inn, and soon to become El Sombrero. The tavern is now a bar.

The KC Corral was built later, as was Red Dogs (occupied today by Nimrick’s) and others. Businesses have come and gone since the 1970 death and rebirth of Key Center; forecast population growth and development may well see another face change for Key Center.

Editor's Note: A more recent, thorough and accurate account of circumstances surrounding the fire can be found in "The Night Key Center Burned," KP News, Feb. 2020.