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Bret Harte Center Destroyed By Fire

Firefighters battled a pre-dawn blaze that destroyed the main building of the Bret Harte Center in Murphys. The 1926-vintage building was fully involved when firefighters arrived at the scene shortly after 4 a.m. Murphys Fire Chief Pat Murphy describes the cause of the fire as “suspicious” in origin.

The fire started in the east end of the wood and stucco single story building and quickly burned its way through the entire structure.

The Bret Harte Center was built in 1926 and had been used over the years as a tuberculosis hospital, California Conservation Corps facility and most recently, a preschool.

Forty-three firefighters and 11 fire engines from various fire departments fought the blaze. Firefighters were not allowed to enter the burning structure due to safety concerns. Crews tried to keep the fire contained to the area and keep it from spreading into other nearby buildings.

The building has been vacant for nearly two years. No one was hurt fighting the blaze. The building is owned by John Kautz, owner of Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys.

The main concern from the fire is asbestos in the old building. Smoke from the fire drifted directly over the town of Murphys this morning, causing health officials to make people aware of the health threat and urge them to keep their distance from the smoke.

A sewer line runs directly under the building and had collapsed, Chief Murphy said. This will cause some problems for the residents who live in a number of small cottages next to the gutted building. Murphy said they will bring portable toilets into the area, but there could be a possibility that the residents may have to be vacated because of the destroyed sewer line.

County environmental health officials and members of the hazardous materials team are on the scene looking into the situation this morning.

Full containment of the fire was expected by noon, Murphy said. Murphy said it will be some time before investigators determine the exact cause of the fire.