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Food shelf apparent target in downtown Olivia, Minn., fire

Burned clothing hangs Monday in the charred remains of the Olivia building that housed the Food Shelf among other business. The state fire marshal says the fire is a result of arson. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

OLIVIA -- The Olivia Police Department and Renville County Sheriff's Office are seeking the public's help to apprehend the person or persons responsible for setting a fire Sunday in the downtown Olivia building that held the Renville County Food Shelf, Hair Connection, American Red Cross office and an apartment unit.

No one was injured in the fire. The resident of the second-floor apartment was able to escape the building, according to the Olivia Police Department.

The state fire marshal determined arson was the cause of the fire. The apparent ignition point was in the front entranceway of the food shelf.

The fire destroyed the contents of the food shelf while smoke and heat caused extensive damage to the hair salon business, office and apartment.

A passerby walking his dog is credited with discovering the blaze just before 8:35 p.m. and possibly averting greater damage. The man noticed that the front door of the food shelf was ajar, and looked in to see a ball of fire. He ran across the street and had a resident call 911, according to Olivia Fire Chief Tim Seehusen.

The Olivia, Danube and Bird Island fire departments responded. Flames were shooting out of the doors and going up the sidewall of the red brick building at the intersection of Ninth Street and Depue Avenue when Olivia firefighters arrived.

A thermal imaging camera allowed firefighters to attack the fire and confine it to the food shelf portion of the building. The food shelf also held a supply of clothing and books, which provided fuel for the blaze. While the flames did not escape the food shelf area, the heat and smoke were intense, said the chief.

The food shelf is looking for a new location and will reopen as quickly as it can, according to Mary Schroepfer, a longtime volunteer with the nonprofit. She said the fire destroyed all of the contents, including five freezers and three refrigerators.

But she said the outpouring of support from the community -- and numerous offers of help -- have the food shelf directors hopeful of reopening quickly. "I think we will come out okay because everybody just wants to help,'' Schroepfer said.

The food shelf distributed 17,177 pounds of food to 280 families, or 1,089 individuals, in August. It has one paid staff person, and relies mainly on the help of some 60 different volunteers, according to Schroepfer.

Fortunately, it was not as full of food as it could have been when the fire occurred. A large shipment of food from Second Harvest was scheduled to arrive on Monday, she explained.

The owner of the Hair Connection intends to re-open her business as quickly as possible but must first replace all of her equipment. Shelly Lippert said the fire charred and destroyed all of the contents in her hair salon. This October would have marked her 25th year working at the site. She has owned the business on her own for the last six years.

The building's owner, David Triplett, was waiting for an insurance adjuster before making any decisions on the building's future.

The fact that the arson was apparently directed at the Food Shelf has left many in the community asking why. "It's sad that something like that would happen to people who are dedicating to volunteering and giving to others,'' Seehusen said.

Anyone with any information regarding this fire is encouraged to contact the Olivia Police Department, the Renville County Sheriff's Department or call the State Arson Hotline at 1-800-723-2020. Rewards of up to $2,500 are offered for information leading to the identification of the person or persons responsible.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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