Mike Luepke’s phone started to buzz at around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 20, 2019, with text messages and photos of a building on fire. At first he didn’t quite know what he was looking at or what was going on, but he quickly realized that something was seriously wrong.
“No way,” thought Luepke, the owner of Mike’s Tire and Auto in Washougal.
Luepke called Jared Cooper, the owner of Racers Division, which along with Mike’s Tire and Auto and two other businesses operated out of the building at 921 Fourth St. Cooper, who had received a frenzied call from Wanda Walker, one of the other business owners, at about 4:30 a.m., told Luepke that a fire had broken out at Riverside Laundry on the east end of the building, and that the strip mall was basically destroyed.
Not long after, Luepke, along with Steve Buck, the building’s owner, and Riverside Laundry owner Mike Miller went to the site to examine the wreckage. They were horrified, dismayed and stunned by what they saw.
“I didn’t even want to get out of my car,” Luepke said. “I sat there, and I just could not believe it. I was going, ‘You have to be kidding me.’ The look on Mike’s face, and the look on Buck’s face … I figured we were done. I figured it was over with.”
The fire, which according to the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office was caused by a pile of sheets that spontaneously combusted, destroyed most of the building, caused about $150,000 worth of damage and forced Miller, Cooper and Walker to suspend or relocate their businesses.
Mike’s Tire and Auto, however, sustained relatively little damage. After a few days of clean-up, Luepke was able to carry on with business as usual.
There was one problem, however — business didn’t carry on as usual.
“It slowed way down,” Luepke said recently of his business. “It was like it was completely done. It was like starting over on day one. It was just like somebody turned my phone off. It was a two-week period when I was on an unplanned vacation. Nobody was calling. My phone used to ring probably 25, 30 times a day.”
Luepke believes customers assumed his shop had closed after the fire.
“The news said we were burnt completely out and this and that,” he said. “I still have customers that drive by and see the building and just go, ‘No, there’s no way they’re there.'”
Luepke has been trying to let people know his business is still up and running, but has had varying degrees of success.
“I had a customer say, ‘Just go put some balloons on your sign out there.’ I said, ‘You know what? That’s a good idea.’ I’ll put some balloons on there and see if that’ll help,” Luepke said. “I’ve had all my parts vendors — AutoZone, O’Reilly’s, Napa, Cost Less — tell everybody (that we’re open). My tool vendors that come in, they tell everybody. I have a bunch of social media support. (The slowdown) is really weird, really strange. I expected to have some (decrease), but I didn’t think it would be that bad, really.”
Luepke, who grew up in Clark County, learned the trade from his father, Rick, who was a mechanic for more than 40 years, and started working on cars when he was 10 years old. He has run Mike’s Tire and Auto for the past nine years, and built a loyal customer base — a base he doesn’t want to disappoint.
“(The fire was) kind of an eye-opener. It makes you think,” he said. “At one point, you’re thinking, ‘Well, maybe it should have just burned, and then I could have been retired.’ But then I think about the people that I service every day, that I take care of, and it makes me want to stay. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll dig through it. We’ll make it.”
Following are updates on the three businesses that were forced to move or close after the October 2019 fire:
Miller, who has owned the laundromat for the past six years, said that he’d like to reopen his business at its previous location, but can’t begin that process until insurance investigations are completed.
“We have three insurance companies working on this, and nobody wants to pay,” Miller said. “Almost three months later, they’re still investigating. They’ve pinpointed where the fire started, but they can’t tell how it started. We’ve done cleanup, but we can’t move forward on rebuilding until they’re done, and that’s probably not going to happen until the springtime.”
Before the fire broke out, Miller and Luepke were in talks with Buck about purchasing the building. Those discussions have been suspended, but Luepke said he remains optimistic that a deal can be reached.
“Everything is on hold until the insurance is done,” Miller said. “We don’t want to assume one insurance company or another is going to pay at this point. It’s been a mess trying to figure out who is at fault, or if anybody’s at fault.”
Miller said the devastation caused by the fire “was obvious,” and that he was forced to lay off seven employees.
The laundromat also was damaged by a fire in June 2019, but firefighters were able to stop the blaze from spreading to other parts of the building.
Wanda Walker Bowenwork
Courtney McPherson, Walker’s granddaughter, wrote on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform, that “the fire ripped through (Walker’s) clinic, destroying it and everything she has accumulated for her business over the years.”
According to McPherson’s post, Walker lost three massage tables; a reflexology chair; Young Living essential oils and products; several sets of massage table sheets and blankets; two aqua chi detox foot bath modules; three large hutches full of office necessities; two desks; four rolling office chairs; light fixtures, several fans; two compact disc players; six waiting area chairs; two couches; a mini-fridge; a microwave; and miscellaneous other furniture, decorations/art, and more.
“This is devastating … something she has worked so hard for has quite literally gone up in flames,” McPherson stated in the post.
As of Monday, the fundraiser had collected $2,665 for Walker’s business.
Walker did not respond to requests for comment.
Cooper has reopened Racers Division, which provides performance outfitting and general automobile repair, in the former Bob’s Transmissions building on Southeast Weir Street in Camas, south of K&M Drive-In.
“Bob Fountain, the owner (of the building), was kind of my mentor,” Cooper said. “When he saw the fire (had) happened, he reached out to us right away and told us about the spot to see if we’d be interested, and we were. This place actually came outfitted a lot better for what we do here. The big advantage is that it comes with two lifts. This was set up as an auto shop, whereas the other shop was a dance studio and a thrift shop. We kind of made it work, but it was oddly shaped, and it wasn’t set up to work on cars. Also, it was a bad-visibility location. People didn’t even know we were in town until after the fire. We’re already getting a lot of response just for being here.”
When Cooper arrived saw the burned building on the morning of Oct. 20, he was “pretty devastated.”
“My heart kind of sunk,” he said. “My first concern was, ‘Are the cars OK?’ more than (anything else), because I had some really rare cars and expensive parts that you couldn’t replace in there. I didn’t know what was going to be left, so when I looked inside and I saw that the cars were still there, and that there was just debris on them, (I was relieved).The tough part was everything in the shop had the roof come down on it, so that did a lot of damage.”
Cooper wrestled with his emotions while he was dealing with the aftermath of the fire.
“You go back and forth between being very sad and just like kind of distraught to being kind of angry that you do everything you can to prevent a fire like that and the neighbor is the one that does it again,” he said. “My hard rule now with having a shop is I’ll never have a connected neighbor again. That’s the biggest reason I can’t go back (to the Fourth Street building). Steve Buck was a great landlord. I really enjoyed renting from him. He will always be a friend. But we like this spot because there’s no connected units that can burn down and take us (with them).”
“It’s very emotional for us to go back to that building,” he continued. “We still have some stuff we have to get out of there, and we’ve been working on that, but every time we go there, my wife almost gets in tears.”
After the fire, Cooper kept the business going by operating out of a friend’s shop in Beaverton, Oregon, and working on cars at customers’ homes. He opened at his new location in early January.
Cooper’s grueling work schedule contributed to a health scare that led him to “put some things into perspective.”
“When the fire happened, I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month, and I was fine because I had something to focus on, but then I started getting this really bad pain (on my side),” he said. “It felt like I had some kind of organ failure. I thought I might have some sort of cancer. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought I was dying. I had massive bloating and all kinds of pain in my in my abdomen, (but doctors said) it was just ulcers related to drinking a lot of coffee, working a lot and stress. Having a serious health complication made me honestly not really care as much about the fire and just focus on more important things.”