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Durango fire officials believe oily rags sparked Ore House restaurant blaze

Fire was deemed ‘accidental.’ Business owner estimates it will take at least six months to reopen business
An early morning fire Jan. 2 at the Ore House restaurant in Durango was the result of oily rags spontaneously combusting, according to Durango Fire Protection District. (Courtesy of Durango Fire Protection District)

It is suspected that oily rags that had been washed, dried and put into a laundry basket started a fire last week at Ore House restaurant in Durango, according to the Durango Fire Protection District.

The fire was reported shortly before 5:30 a.m. Jan. 2 in the 600 block of Main Avenue. Firefighters arrived to find smoke coming from the Ore House at 147 E. College Drive.

The blaze started in a laundry room adjacent to the kitchen, said DFPD Fire Marshal Karola Hanks.

DFPD classified the Ore House fire as “accidental.”

“This was not something that anybody intentionally did,” Hanks said.

In the restaurant industry, it is common to use a variety of rags and washcloths, including those for cleaning tables and those to wipe up heavy oils and greases in the kitchen, Hanks said. The oily rags can retain oils even after being washed, she said.

Fire investigators believe the rags had been washed, dried and put into a basket. The heat from the drier and the leftover oily residues likely caused a spontaneous combustion, Hanks said.

“The dryer adds enough heat into the decomposition that’s already happening to continue the process of decomposition, and the decomposition is also adding more heat,” she said. “So they build on themselves.”

Restaurants are generally advised to have commercial-grade washers and dryers and to use commercial-grade detergents to breakdown the oils and prevent spontaneous combustion, she said. Otherwise, they are advised to use third-party cleaning services that use heavy-duty equipment.

Flames, smoke and water caused significant damage to Ore House restaurant on Jan. 2 in Durango. (Courtesy of Durango Fire Protection District)

The Ore House had a front-loading washer and dryer. Such machines may be marketed as industrial-grade, but that doesn’t mean they are up to that standard, Hanks said.

“They’re using a basic commercial washer that you would buy, but not the heavy-duty version,” she said.

It is not the first time oily rags have spontaneously combusted in Durango’s restaurant industry.

About five years ago in the same block as Ore House, rags left in a dryer at East By Southwest caught fire. A couple of years before that, rags that had been washed, dried and folded caught fire at Gazpacho restaurant, Hanks said.

Ryan Lowe, owner of Ore House, estimated the restaurant will be closed for at least six months. He thanked firefighters and the person who called 911 to report seeing smoke.

“Whoever called it in is a hero, because even though the damages caused are immense, it could have been so much worse,” Lowe said in a text message to The Durango Herald.

Even though the building looks “rustic” from the outside, the Ore House staff keeps the inside of the restaurant “immaculate,” he said.

“With that said accidents still happen, and we are so glad that nobody was hurt,” Lowe said. “There is a lot we all can learn about this incident.”

Will “Beatle” Abshagen, who owns the building and used to own the Ore House, said the building “is pretty much going to have to be gutted,” not necessarily because of fire damage, but because of smoke and water damage.

The original artwork inside the business will undergo restoration work as a result of smoke damage, he said.

“It’s been a landmark restaurant,” he said. “There’s no reason that it shouldn’t be brought back – even better than before.”


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