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Beyond the Blaze

After a devastating Lost Barrio fire, two craftsmen are not allowed to salvage what survived

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The sunrise was a lot brighter as seen from the Lost Barrio warehouse district on Monday, Aug. 13.

The steadily increasing glow over the Rincon Mountains was accentuated by flames pouring from a warehouse at 5 a.m. The fire destroyed half of the building and left the other side teetering on the brink of collapse, displacing several craftsmen.

Six weeks later, the cause of the fire still hasn't been determined—and the blaze's aftermath continues to wreak havoc on those who occupied parts of the affected space.

"We've been victimized ever since," said Chris Larsen, 62, one of five artists who worked in the burned building. "Everything that relates to guitar-building for me ... was in there."

And much of it still is in there, said Bob Mick, Larsen's longtime friend, collaborator and warehouse co-tenant. The fire destroyed the south side of the building, on Park Avenue south of Broadway Boulevard. But the north end—where Mick and Larsen had spent the past two years trying to revitalize the Tucson guitar-making industry—appears to contain plenty of salvageable material.

"I can see things from here," Mick, 65, said last week, pointing toward an opening in the building from about 30 feet away, on the other side of a chain-link fence erected after the fire. "A lot of stuff in there is still good. There are teak doors in there that are done and waiting for a client. He needs them for a remodel. But they won't let us go in and get them."

Larsen and Mick said they were each allowed to take a couple of things from the wreckage before being shooed away. Larsen took a prototype guitar he had been working on, one that could be plugged into an iPhone as well as a laptop; Mick took a sander and a guitar he'd been refurbishing for a client.

More usable items remain inside, they say. But the insurance company that holds the policy on the warehouse has blocked attempts by tenants to rescue what remains unless the removal is done by highly paid specialists.

"They can get their stuff out whenever they want, as long as they get an abatement contractor," said David Conger, the insurance adjuster assigned to the fire. "I'd love to give everything to those guys ... but it has to be done properly."

Mick said he had been prepared to pay a specialist $700 per day to remove items from the warehouse. But before he could do that, asbestos was found on the premises.

"We've had it tested; it's in there," said Conger, who declined to identify the location of the asbestos in the building. He said nearby residents aren't in danger. "As long as it's wet and it's heavy, it's fine."

The asbestos discovery more than tripled the cost of sending someone into the building, to about $2,500 per day, Mick said. With neither artist bringing in much income now, the cost is unaffordable.

Instead, the artists must wait for the building's yet-to-be-scheduled demolition, at which time the demolition team may be able to remove some items before tearing it down. Those workers, however, will be more concerned with taking the building down than salvaging items from it, Conger said.

"I'd rather they have their own people do it," Conger said.

Larsen said he and Mick have been told the demolition team will hand them items from the building, but they don't know how reliable that will be.

"I try to drive by here every day, but we could come by one day and see all of our stuff is gone," Larsen said.

Mick figures he could retrieve a handful of important tools and some completed guitars from protective metal drawers in about 15 minutes. The men say it would take three to four hours to remove all of their property.

In addition to the fencing, the building has 24-hour security. Last Friday, Sept. 21, a guard was camped under a tree just up the street from the burned building, his gaze fixed on Mick and Larsen as they stood near the fence.

"We don't know what the penalty would be for entering a hazmat zone," Mick said.

Conger said the fencing and security are there to protect what might still be usable inside the warehouse, and also to keep the area safe for nearby businesses and the Tucson Unified School District's Project MORE High School, which is just south of the burned warehouse.

Mick and Larsen believe the security is there to keep them from entering the building, and not for safety reasons or to prevent looting.

Much of the issues Mick and Larsen are dealing with now could have been mitigated if either tenant had insurance, Conger said. The building was protected, but not all renters were insured.

"This is a perfect example of why people need to protect themselves," he said.

Mick, who ran a furniture business called Astro Fab for nearly 30 years from a warehouse on Toole Avenue before moving to the Lost Barrio, said he's never been insured.

"It's just not something I ever thought about," Mick said.

Mick and Larsen believe their combined losses from the fire could total about $130,000, including a machine Larsen used for his guitar prototype that would cost $30,000 to replace.

"I'm out of business," Larsen said.

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