Two-alarm fire damages landmark restaurant

Blaze at Who Song & Larry's caused by electrical malfunction




A two-alarm fire caused significant damage to a landmark restaurant along the Columbia River waterfront Monday.

The blaze at Who Song & Larry’s Cantina at 111 S.E. Columbia Way was reported to dispatchers at 1:19 p.m. Truck 1 with the Vancouver Fire Department was the first unit on the scene when it arrived about three minutes later. At that point, light smoke was coming from the roof.

Firefighters went into the building to investigate and determined there was a working attic fire, said Vancouver Firefighter Joe Spatz. The fire did not get into the main restaurant but it did suffer smoke and water damage, Spatz said.

The restaurant is closed and it is uncertain when it would reopen.

Two engine companies took hoses inside and two members of the truck crew pulled part of the ceiling down to access the fire. At one point, flames erupted from the roof and a second alarm was called.

The fire was caused by an electrical malfunction isolated to lighting equipment, said Vancouver Fire Marshal Dave Smith.

Damage to the structure was estimated at $40,000 but that figure could rise when smoke and water damage is determined, Spatz said. A restoration company was on the scene Monday.

Many of the on-duty firefighters in the city responded along with an engine from Clark County Fire District 6 and Boat 17 from the Portland Fire Bureau. That equates to 29 firefighters, Spatz said.

The fire was under control by 1:52 p.m. There were no reported injuries but the restaurant closed in the middle of the lunch rush.

A manager at the restaurant, who didn’t give his name, said the upstairs portion of the building, which has a kitchen, bar and seating area, is only used for parties.

A sprinkler activated in the attic, keeping the fire in check, Spatz said. Also, five sprinklers went off in the upstairs kitchen and bar.

The restaurant manager said employees first thought the smell of the fire could be burning tortillas. He went upstairs with the chef to see what the smell was and found the area full of smoke.

He called 911 to report the fire while employees and customers evacuated the restaurant.

Elijah Johnson of Chico, Calif., said he stopped by the restaurant to use the bathroom just before the fire. He heard sirens and thought ambulances were driving through the area. A few seconds later, an employee opened the door and said there was a fire.

A group of restaurant employees also gathered outside the restaurant as light smoke filled the area. Most of them were huddled under a group of trees in the back of the parking lot to avoid the rain.

Vancouver police temporarily blocked Columbia Way and the parking lot entrance to the restaurant and neighboring Joe’s Crab Shack.

Who Song has occupied a spot on the north bank of the Columbia River, just east of the Interstate 5 Bridge, for nearly 30 years, and predates Waterfront Park. It is a unit of RM Opco, which since March 12 is the owner of the El Torito and Chevy’s Fresh Mex chains, among other brands.

Firefighters remained on scene past 3 p.m.

Metro Editor Craig Brown contributed to this story.