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Friday, February 21, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fire Destroys I-5 Landmark -- Warehouse That Housed Sunny Jim Plant Burns

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

S-U-N-N-Y J-I-M. The large, familiar letters that crowned a vacant South Seattle warehouse have bowed down to flames, the last relic of a peanut-butter company long gone but still a landmark.

Where once peanuts were roasted and turned into "krunchy" peanut butter, all that remains are charred timber and brick after a fire yesterday swept through the building.

Years had passed since the two-story plant actually made the peanut butter that carried the Sunny Jim name. The city of Seattle bought the building five or six years ago. It had previously housed Northwest Bottling.

Fire damage was confined to the two-story former warehouse, which is flanked to the north and south by connected, one-story buildings. The entire building, in an industrial area at Airport Way South and South Nebraska Street, houses the Seattle Transportation Department.

Preliminary reports indicate the fire was started by roofers working nearby, Capt. Randy Hansen, fire department spokesman, said this morning. No damage estimate will be provided because the building was scheduled for demolition, he said.

No one was injured in the fire. About 100 Department of Transportation employees work in the building, but most were out in the field doing maintenance, said Gerry Willhelm, director of traffic operations.

About 20 employees were evacuated after a passer-by alerted them.

The fire was reported about 1:40 p.m.

Company founded in 1921

Germanus Wilhelm Firnstahl founded Pacific Standard Foods, maker of the Sunny Jim brand, in 1921 after he moved from Wisconsin and bought a peanut roaster. He bought the Airport Way South plant during the Depression. The company became the supplier of a third of all peanut butter in the Seattle area during the 1950s, before it eventually was sold in 1979.

But until yesterday, the familiar, rosy-cheeked face on the Sunny Jim sign still grinned mischievously at cars passing on nearby Interstate 5.

The warehouse that burned was mostly vacant, containing only old traffic signals that were "not a big loss," said Willhelm. The building south of the fire housed traffic signals, signs, a sign-making shop, trucks, forklifts and cars.

The Seattle Fire Department contained the fire to the vacant warehouse by closing a rolling firewall, Hansen said.

Although the fire didn't damage the $1 million in sensitive electrical equipment stored just beyond the firewall, Transportation Department officials were worried about possible water damage.

Rosemary Bachmann, the city's field supervisor for traffic signals, was eager to peek inside the building to see if the water had damaged the control boxes stored there. Firefighters planned to cover the traffic-signal equipment.

City had considered demolition

Hansen said the fire started in the upper part of the warehouse section.

Employees of Rainbow Federal, an Everett roofing company, have been working since late October to put a new roof on the southern end of the building.

Roger Bruce, manager of Rainbow Federal, declined to comment on the type of materials or process used in the roofing. He said his roofers saw the flames and called 911.

The city bought the Sunny Jim building five or six years ago, said Jun Quan, a city associate architect.

For several years, the city had debated demolishing the warehouse portion, which was too old to be useful, Quan said.

The age of the building also made it tough for firefighters, Hansen said.

When they first arrived, firefighters climbed to the roof to put out the fire, but were quickly pulled off to go into a defensive, "surround-and-drown" approach, he said.

Information from Seattle Times staff reporters Dee Norton, Tyrone Beason, Dave Birkland is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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