On Monday, January 22nd, 2023, at about 11 AM, calls flooded 911 dispatchers with reports of a blaze at the Ilwaco Landing Cannery. The Ilwaco Fire Department, headed by Fire Chief Jeff Archer, promptly responded to the distress calls. The fire originated on the Ilwaco Landing wharf, situated over Baker Bay waters near the mouth of the Columbia River.
The blaze engulfed nearly all structures on the Ilwaco Landing wharf, including the cannery building, crab pots, vehicles parked on the dock, and the dock itself. The fire resulted in a complete and total loss.
The 2024 Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishing Season begins this week on February 1st, which means the crabbing fleet was busy staging for their season. Approximately 8,500 commercial crab pots, equipped with ropes and licenses, were assembled on the dock in anticipation.
Fire Chief Jeff Archer noted challenges faced by crews in accessing the fire location due to the equipment stored on the dock and the narrow entrance to the cannery. While the water supply typically meets the area’s needs on a regular day, it proved insufficient to combat a fire of such magnitude. Chief Archer affirmed that the cannery met regulatory standards and had experienced neither a fire nor a medical incident in the past.
It was also stated that a firefighting vessel from an agency in Oregon, across the river, was summoned, but unfortunately there were not enough crew members at the time to staff the vessel.
During a press conference, Pacific County Emergency Management Director Scott McDougall spoke about the fire. “Mutual aid was requested from Chinook, Long Beach and Pacific County Fire District #1. Additional mutual aid was then requested from Naselle, South Bend, and Pacific County Fire District #3 and Raymond. Of 11 fire protection agencies within Pacific County 8 of them were involved with this call. As the size of the fire increased, the dock became compromised and the decision was made to fight the fire defensively,” McDougall said. “So all people were pulled out of the structure, and water was sprayed from the outside in order to keep the firefighters safe and to stop the spread of the fire.”
Approximately 4,000 pots were lost in the blaze, yet nearly as many have been replaced through the kindness and generosity of community members. Crabbers along the West Coast united to provide replacement gear, generously loaning hundreds of pots for the entire season.
Within local communities, individuals, businesses, and various organizations are actively collecting donations across the Long Beach Peninsula to replace gear lost in the fire. The Ilwaco Tuna Club has successfully raised over $100,000 through a GoFundMe campaign as of Tuesday, January 30th, toward their goal of $150,000. Contributions can be made at GoFundMe.
Political leaders are pledging state and federal support over the coming months. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) issued a statement about the results of the fire, “This is devastating news for the entire community and I am continuing to monitor the situation closely. The waterfront is the heart of Ilwaco and the local economy. My prayers are with the entire community, including the cannery workers and fishing families who rely on the docks for their livelihoods.”
“The investigation is being led by the ATF and a fire investigator from Pierce County and is being supported by our county fire investigation team,” said McDougall. “Because of the amount of damage, the investigation will take some time. At this time the cause is unknown.”
The Department of Ecology has been enlisted for assistance and is collaborating with McDougall to develop a cleanup strategy for the site while damage estimates are being compiled. The fire investigation concluded on Saturday without a public announcement of the findings. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives investigators are in the process of finalizing the origin and cause report. Once completed, the Ilwaco Fire Department will receive the findings.