By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A fire at the building that houses Harbor City Restaurant on Sept. 1 caused an estimated $125,000 in damage and was ruled “accidental”—caused by a grease fire in the kitchen. Nobody was hurt.
But a community member who has extensive knowledge of buildings and restaurants in the Seattle Chinatown-International District (CID) said it could have been a lot worse.
And he told the Northwest Asian Weekly that “nobody is going to care until someone dies or you get multiple fires like this.”
“Chow,” the community member, who wants to remain anonymous due to fears of getting sued, said there was such a huge response to this fire because he thinks the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) believed there was a chance the whole building could have gone up in flames. And it is a problem across the CID.
Take Canton Alley, Chow said.
“Look at the vent hood coming off the building… you’ll see grease marks. Where do you think that comes from? That comes from inside the duct work when it gets hot, it melts and starts dripping off the access panel. But nobody wants to address it.”
Perry Lee is not surprised. The retired health and environmental investigator for King County regularly told restaurant owners to clean their ventilation systems.
“There’s always a huge buildup of grease and oil that gets up to the ventilation system, especially in a lot of the Chinese restaurants where they do a lot of frying and grilling and a lot of the teriyaki Japanese restaurants.”
Lee added, “When I go and do inspections, I see grease hanging from the hood… A lot of these old places… they don’t want to put money back into the business… they don’t want to spend money.”
SFD told the Northwest Asian Weekly that the Harbor City fire also spread through the duct system and caused minor damage to the rooftop.
SFD sent a total of three ladder trucks, six engines, two aid cars, one medic unit, and one medical services officer. There were also various other command and support units.
“At Seattle Fire, we have a tiered response system, which means we will send enough units to be able to handle an incident with details reported via 911, and then scale back as necessary,” said Kristin Tinsley, SFD’s senior communications manager. “With this incident, crews observed heavy smoke from the rooftop upon arrival, so all units were kept on scene for some time to mitigate the incident before we began to demobilize resources. Medic units stay on scene for both possible injuries to community members and also firefighters.”
Public safety is not just about “bad guys robbing and beating people up,” Chow said. Fire safety is also a public safety issue.
He pointed out the ductwork at a restaurant, and that their ductwork goes up the side of a major street in the CID.
“A few years ago, their employees had to come outside and take a break because the air flow was zero in there… it was completely packed with grease, you couldn’t get any air flow in there,” Chow said. “So what they did was, they replaced it. Instead of cleaning it once a month, they replaced it.”
Chow suggested to the owners that they should place access panels in the duct work every 10 feet so they could clean it, and he was told to mind his own business.
“They basically are building up the same problem and people don’t care,” said Chow.
Lee said the health department would tell restaurant owners that they need to clean their ventilation systems at least once a month.
Not a major violation
“Cleanliness is the least important thing to the King County Health Department,” Lee told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Cleaning grease off the hood, or rather, not cleaning it—is not a major violation, Lee said.
“It’s a two-point violation. It’s not a critical violation.”
Dirty walls and dirty floors don’t make you sick, Lee said.
The critical or “red” violations are temperature—keeping food hot or cold—and handwashing.
The total estimated damage from the Harbor City fire was $125,000, according to the SFD.
The ductwork alongside the building spans 50 to 80 feet, and cleaning just 10 feet of that ductwork, Chow said, costs at least $6,000.
“I’ve told (various public agencies)… everybody understands my concern.. And nobody is willing to say a word on it because it means basically hitting the pocketbook of every single restaurant in Chinatown.”
“What’s going to happen if all restaurants here (CID) were told, ‘You need to do this?’ All of a sudden, the media’s going to get a hold of it and people are going to claim racism,” Chow said. “Nobody wants to be called a racist.”
Chow pointed to a local TV station’s expose in the early 1990s about the dirtiest restaurants in King County, and a number of them were in Chinatown.
“Remember that? And what happened?” Chow said, “Everybody came down on that station… so they pulled it. You can’t find it on the internet anymore, you can’t find that story because nobody wants to be called a racist.”
Harbor City Restaurant has been closed since the fire and the kitchen is being remodeled.
The restaurant will reopen next week.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.