HUNTINGTON BEACH — The City of Huntington Beach released the following update on March 18:
The Huntington Beach Fire Department (HBFD), in collaboration with the Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD), has completed a rigorous investigation into the cause of the fire that took place at the Wintersburg property on Feb. 25, 2022.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life or injuries as a result of the fire that occurred near Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane. While HBFD was able to limit the amount of damage and protect the church, the entire Wintersburg site is recognized as a historic and important landmark. All historic Wintersburg structures are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Due to various factors, the HBFD and HBPD have identified two potential causes of the fire, but are unable to identify its exact origin. The HBFD and HBPD have no reason to believe the fire was intentionally set. There is no evidence of arson or a hate crime.
Evidence of personal belongings at the site of the fire indicate at least one individual was possibly living on the property. Through the investigation, the HBPD was able to determine that a local known transient was living nearby and was seen leaving the area shortly after the fire. That individual is not currently a suspect. It is unclear whether this person was involved in the fire or whether the fire may have been caused by someone living on the property. HBPD will continue to investigate this individual’s possible association.
A second potential cause is due to the Wintersburg property being electrified at the time of the fire. After inquiring with Southern California Edison, electricity may have been illegally and dangerously acquired by tapping into a nearby power source, bypassing the electric meter.
The City of Huntington Beach has been informed by the owners of the Wintersburg property, Republic Services, of its intentions to enhance its security of the site.
The Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force has released the following response to the city’s update:
• The official fire investigation reports by HBFD and HBPD have not yet been released. Those reports have been requested via a public records request. We await those official reports before making any conclusions about the investigations based on a press release.
• There is missing information regarding the demolition of buildings; we do not know if that will be included in the official investigation reports at this time. (Note: Supporters of Historic Wintersburg say that Republic Services bulldozed not only the fire-damaged structure but also a neighboring structure that was untouched by the fire, in both cases destroying possible evidence in the investigation and valuable historical artifacts.)
• The city states they were “able to limit the amount of damage and protect the church.” One church was lost, the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission structure. This has been a source of confusion for the public and media, as that continues to be repeated by the city despite being provided information from the ALTA (American Land Title Association) survey of the property.
• The response by the fire department was quick and heroic, and prevented further damage to the entirety of the Historic Wintersburg property and the Oak View neighborhood.
• There is more action needed regarding the root causes of the fire. Demolition by neglect, inadequate security, vandalism, theft of artifacts, ongoing damage or removal to parts of structures by the property owner, Republic Services. There is a very long list documenting notification to them (and predecessor Rainbow Environmental) of these issues over the past decade.