No one injured in Forest Hill Restaurant fire

Thursday, May 21, 2020
No one was injured in a fire Wednesday, May 13, at the Forest Hills Restaurant building in Eureka Springs.
Photo by Mary Lee

By Samantha Jones

No one was injured in a fire at the former Forest Hill Restaurant on Wednesday, May 13.

Eureka Springs fire chief Nick Samac said the fire department received notification of the fire at 6 p.m. Wednesday. According to the fire department’s report, the blaze “turned out to be one of the larger fires Eureka Springs has had in a while.”

“There have been some large fires in Eureka Springs,” Samac said. “The old red brick schoolhouse and the convention center — those things come to mind when we think of large fires, but Forest Hill was a relatively large building with quite a bit of square footage.”

The structure has two stories on the front side and three stories on the back side, totaling more than 15,3000 square feet. While the building was primarily a restaurant on the main floor, the report says, there were apartments on the top floor and some were occupied at the time of the blaze. There was also a gift shop area on the main floor and a basement that served as a space for functions and storage, according to the report.

The report says the fire was contained to the top floor and main floor. All occupants exited the structure safely, the report says, and firefighters started their initial attack in the upstairs apartment area before being forced back out because of extreme heat and the quickly deteriorating condition of the structure.

The report says the fire was first reported with smoke in the upstairs area.

That’s how eyewitness Mary Lee reported the blaze. Lee said she and her husband were heading home from the grocery store when she spotted brown smoke coming from the roof of the structure.

“I said, ‘I think it’s on fire,’ ” Lee said.

When they got closer to the structure, Lee said, she knew it was on fire.

“I had no idea there were apartments on the top,” Lee said. “It was clear that’s where the fire started.”

The scene was chaotic, Lee said, with people running all around the parking lot. Lee remembered seeing a couple run by with a baby and a man searching for the keys to his truck that was parked too close to the structure. He moved the vehicle before it was too late, Lee said, but it was close

“The smoke was just getting worse and worse. it took a long time before the flames actually started coming through the roof,” Lee said, “and when one of the windows went out, it just started blazing.”

Lee recalled speaking to a woman who said she had planned to move into the apartments the next day because her house recently burned down.

“She said the new owner was doing some remodeling on the apartments and theirs was going to be ready to move in tomorrow,” Lee said. “It’s just mind-blowing how the whole thing developed. We were there for over an hour.”

Lee continued, “Then the brown smoke turned into black smoke and I said, ‘We better get out of here before they close the road.’ It was pretty scary, but luckily no one was hurt. I had never seen a fire right from the beginning to the end.”

Samac said some firefighters were released from the scene in stages starting around 9:30 p.m. until 11 p.m., while Eureka Springs crews stayed on the scene until after 2 a.m. overhauling and extinguishing hot spots. Some personnel stayed on scene all night, Samac said.

“I left there at 3:30 in the morning. The last thing we want is a rekindle,” Samac said. “We don’t want to leave that fire not extinguished or miss a hot spot and have to call everybody back out. It’s the last thing fire departments want.”

Samac said three Eureka Springs Fire Department trucks — two pumpers and one ladder truck — responded to the fire, along with surrounding departments. Inspiration Point Rural Fire Protection District brought two tankers and personnel, Holiday Island Fire Department brought a tanker, pumper, command vehicle and personnel, Berryville Fire Department brought two trucks and personnel and Southern EMS was on the scene to help cover EMS calls. Samac said the Eureka Springs Police Department was on hand to help with traffic and crowd control. That means more than 45 firefighters and EMS personnel were there to help with the fire, Samac said.

“Having mutual aid departments is invaluable in small communities, especially when we don’t have the manpower or resources available for ridiculously large fires,” Samac said. “It’s what we do in small-town America.”

Samac added, “Larger communities have a force of 150 guys that work for their department. In rural America, it takes several departments all working together. It’s invaluable.”

The former Forest Hill Restaurant was being renovated into Ramsey’s Restaurant and Club Bird Cage before the blaze. Allen Haines Ramsey said he leased the restaurant and downstairs space from the property owner.

He had planned to purchase the property once the renovation was complete, Ramsey said, but now those plans are up in the air depending on how the property owner moves forward.

“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. We ran across the opportunity to do it and then we had a mishap upstairs,” Ramsey said. “It’s devastating when you sit there and you’re watching your dream go up in smoke.”

Ramsey said he was only part of the restaurant for a while, saying the property owner constructed the building from the ground up 24 years ago.

“I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen next. If he decides he wants to rebuild, I’m all for it,” Ramsey said. “If not, then I am going to scout out and look at other places.”

Ramsey said he believes an electrical fire started the blaze and Samac said the cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

“That’s under investigation. It’s hard to tell,” Samac said. “It will take some time to determine the cause and origin of the fire.”

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