“Burning” Issues Remain After 2013 Exchange Fire

April 13, 2024

Photo c/o exchangeorcas.org
People who have lived in San Juan County long enough are familiar with the original “Exchange”, a recycle/re-use operation, designed to take useful items out of the waste stream.
The “Exchange” is variously reported as being established between 1981 and 1983, and contains nearly everything needed to outfit a household. The Exchange website ( https://exchangeorcas.org) states that The Exchange started as a one-room cabin on the grounds of the Orcas Transfer Station, and “grew organically into a whimsical collection of sheds, tents and handmade structures filled with useful items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.”

Indeed, my family got lots of stuff at The Exchange, from chairs to hardware. The original Exchange was a collection of buildings, power cords, and cool stuff. It was something of a “Rat’s Nest”, but it was the island’s favorite Rat’s Nest. One former Exchange employee told me that he met people from all over the world that came to see The Exchange. Unfortunately, it was determined by San Juan County that the original Exchange needed to be replaced. This, as best as I could research, was what happened.

I have decided not to include any names. These names are available in the public record, but most had no involvement in the fire, and there was no reason to drag others down my year-long grubby rabbit-hole. I also considered several ways to present this information, and decided on a narrative format.
I am certainly no journalist, and am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Perhaps people can see how I came to my conclusions and point out things I may have overlooked.

To begin with, I attended a presentation 3-20-23 given by a representative of The Washington State Attorney General’s Office about obtaining public records. This proved to be important. I had been tipped off by an Exchange employee and another person, a member of the Fire Department, that the Exchange fire was worth looking into. The fire occurred on February 9, 2013, on a Saturday after closing time at 4:40 pm. As of last year, it has been over ten years since the fire, which was reportedly discovered by a member of the Orcas Island Fire Department, driving by in a fire truck, after another drill.

Heavy black smoke from the fire could be seen in Eastsound.

On the same Saturday evening that the fire occurred, and before anything resembling an investigation was completed, “The Islands’ Sounder” paper dutifully reported that the “Exchange fire is confirmed as accidental” (online version). “It is presumed that someone took a burning object and put it in a trash can”, the article reported, in what would become an ongoing rumor that persists to this day. More on that later.

The fire was intense, and it’s good nobody was hurt. One Orcas fireman told me stuff was exploding, and the fire report states that the County backhoe was used to help tear burning structures apart.

Photo c/o exchangeorcas.org

The “Sounder” reported that forty-five OIFR members responded to the call. Another fire department employee told me this was the largest group of firefighters trained and outfitted in years. For comparison, the recent Glenwood Inn controlled burn, a well-planned training exercise, utilized thirty-eight members of the department.

Here is where things really start getting sticky:

You see, San Juan County (Washington State) had a problem.
The SJC Solid And Hazardous Waste Plan (page 62) states:
“In July of 2010, the San Juan Island transfer station’s solid waste handling permit was re-issued for operation only as a drop-box, limiting its service capability to self-haul vehicles. The Orcas transfer station became the only County facility permitted to operate a tipping floor and, therefore, the only County facility able to acceptloads from packer trucks.”
The Orcas transfer station also operated the County’s only drive-on scale. (“Packer Trucks” are large trucks designed to collect and transport solid waste, garbage, and recyclables..)

The above report cites “Inadequate parking, poor traffic flow, and overall crowding during peak season at both the Exchange and transfer station, reducing the efficient movement of customers and waste into and out of the facility.”

This 2012 document, which is easily available online, called for a major re-design of The Exchange and transfer station.
Only one thing stood in the way; the original Exchange.

The document dive began, with all the proper Public Records Request jargon. All County and fire officials (perhaps reluctantly) complied. I believe four requests were submitted, all at first by certified mail, which I was told has the power of subpoena. Several document requests were satisfied, until one ended up missing somewhere in Friday Harbor (The County Seat). I wasted much time trying to locate that request and direct it to the correct official. It was never located. To be fair, a representative of the Postal service in Eastsound offered to send a person to find it, but by then my questions had been answered by e-mail, which had been recommended by the State Attorney General’s office.

An “investigation” was conducted by the fire department and County Fire Marshal’s office. The result was a 39-page document that established a false history, in my opinion.

In the San Juan County Fire Marshal report, it is clearly stated that at closing time at The Exchange, a customer started a microwave oven to test it, either knowing or not, that there was an “Ace”-type bandage (refereed to as a rubber band) in the oven, which started burning. Published reports suggest someone removed the smoldering object and put it in a garbage can. The fire report States that the fire started in a garbage can, which was photographed later. As previously written, the fire was reportedly discovered by a member of the Orcas Island fire department, while driving by in a fire truck after another drill.

Photo c/o OIFR

Two Exchange employees were interviewed (by the fire department) as well as two County employees who were present. One Exchange employee stated that the test of the microwave may have created some type of short in the electrical system. The other employee stated that “there was no microwave in the test area”. Neither County employee noticed anything burning at the Exchange. All were asked if they knew anyone that may have started the fire intentionally, indicating criminal intent. Each said they did not know anybody that would have started a fire.

There were several other people who I interviewed later. One was a shopper at the Exchange who was named in the fire report. He had left before the fire, and reiterated the microwave story, which he had heard. Another was a current Fire Department employee, who had told me things were exploding, and it was dangerous. I also interviewed three previous Exchange employees, one who came up with the idea for The Exchange years ago. Two Exchange employees told me there were buckets of loose batteries around, and that it was somewhat common for small fires to occur. All were easily extinguished. I also was able to interview a current Exchange employee in the curated locked upstairs room. It was like being in a museum. In the course of our discussion, I asked that person if the microwave story could have been “a patsy”. This person somewhat agreed, and even said they wondered at the time of the fire if a large company competing for the garbage/recycling contract may have started the fire.
In a press release on The Exchange website, it is stated: “Fearful that a big garbage corporation would take over the Orcas Transfer Station and evict The Exchange…”
The person I interviewed also told me that a fire science class had taken up the challenge to try to get an Ace bandage burning enough to have caught other stuff on fire. The class was not able to replicate said fire.

At long last, I was running out of sources. The County told me they only had to keep records for six years, and then they were bundled and sent to the State Archives. I first called Olympia, and they directed me to Bellingham. Every attempt for further information came up empty.

Finally, there was a bombshell. I had e-mailed an Executive Director of the Exchange these questions and here were the answers:

1.Was the Exchange self-insured by the County, or was there a private carrier? Is it currently insured the same way?

The Exchange, pre-fire, was I would say “under-insured” as a business. Since 2013, when ORS/The Exchange took over running the transfer station, we have been insured adequately, at our own expense, through San Juan Insurance.

2.Several Exchange and County employees were interviewed and asked if they knew anybody that might have intentionally started a fire. The source of the fire was reported as an Ace-type bandage (rubber etc) that was in a microwave that a woman tested. Was that person ever identified and interviewed?

That was a rumor we all heard back then, but I do not know where the story came from or who first reported it. I personally don’t believe it. There were a million ways for a fire to start in the old Exchange. It was probably an electrical fire.

3.Was the person who removed the smoldering Ace bandage from the microwave and put it in a garbage can ever identified and interviewed?

4.What happened to the microwave? Was it ever examined?


So there we have it – much as I suspected, there never was a microwave. It was a cover-story. I don’t know why, but I can speculate.

Let’s review some of the facts:

1.The individual that “discovered” and called-in the fire was a fire department employee, driving a
fire truck.
2. Probably the largest group of firefighters in Orcas Island history were trained and outfitted before the fire. This was told to me by a former member of OIFR – The Fire Department.
3. The fire occurred in a winter month, February, when fire was unlikely to spread. Additionally, the fire occurred on a Saturday after closing time.
4. Despite questions about possible criminal intent, there never was a microwave oven recovered for inspection, and nobody who claimed to either start a microwave oven or remove any burning debris interviewed. In fact, there appears to have been no microwave oven at all, yet a burned-up garbage can was photographed.
5. The Fire Marshal was off Island and had subordinates conduct the fire extinguishing, clean- up operation and subsequent “investigation”. The area depiction map is unreadable, printed on graph paper in felt pen.

It is possible that The Exchange, as it was, was an embarrassment to the County. According to the fire report, losses to property were assessed at $112,300.00, losses to contents were $10,000.00, totaling $123,000.00, with only a $300.00 loss of trees.
There was clearly a major plan to redesign The Exchange, which needed more room for large trucks headed to the scale and tipping floor.

One thing is for sure, no proper investigation was conducted. The State Attorney General’s office told me that for that scale of a fire, either the Sheriff’s Department or State Fire Investigator should have been involved. The only evidence of the Sheriff’s Department was in road/crowd control. Except for routine dispatch notes, no documents suggest the Sheriff did an investigation.

Another thing is certain. To a person, everyone I talked to about the incident couldn’t be happier the way things worked out. The firefighter was proud, the Exchange has a modern new building, former and current employees were very happy with the results, and the County got their major redesign. One Attorney I talked to (with a wink and a smile) said something like “Everybody knows how things happen at the County level”.

Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote; “All’s well that ends well”.

For more information on the Exchange, please go to https://exchangeorcas.org/ .

-John Titus

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One Response to “Burning” Issues Remain After 2013 Exchange Fire

  1. JT on April 18, 2024 at 3:09 pm

    Interesting comment came in on another forum I posted this article on:

    “So interesting to read this…I was there as the fire raged, on the Board of ORS after (1 week before!) we had won the contract for the transfer station. The county and our commissioners were initially not supportive of local citizens running the transfer station on Orcas, but after Sharon Kivisto published the full legal history of our competitor there were closed door meetings and eventual awarding of the contract to the people of Orcas, via ORS. Some folks weren’t happy, guess who? Many of us were, it was important and hard fought, kudos to all the board members at that time. But there is no denying ownership of the garbage industry in this country, or the way they “convince” government reps to support their business. Draw your own conclusions. After the fire I walked the site with SJC fire people, including Ghiglione, and must observe that they didn’t seem much interested in its cause.”

    Just when I thought the story was finished..

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