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Fire At Historic Japanese American Settlement Appears Unintentional, Huntington Beach Officials Say

A black and white vintage photo of a Japanese American family with a mother and father and four children.
Yukiko and Charles Furuta, founder of Wintersburg Village, with their four daughters and son.
( Courtesy of Mary Adams Urashima)
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After fire partially damaged one of the country’s oldest, intact Japanese American settlements last month, preservationists grew concerned the blaze had been deliberately set.

Their efforts in recent years to protect the more than century-old Wintersburg settlement in Huntington Beach had raised opposition, sometimes in the form of anti-Asian attacks on social media.

But on Friday, the city released a statement saying investigators had found no evidence of a hate crime or arson and “have no reason to believe the fire was intentionally set.” 

Although investigators did not conclude how the fire started on Feb. 25, they noted that someone may have been living on the property, which is owned by Republic Services, a waste management company which operates a transfer station across the street.

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WINTERSBURG FIRE
A fire tore through part of one of the country's oldest Japanese American settlements, Wintersburg.
(Mary Urashima)

According to the city statement, fire investigators discovered that a “local known transient" was seen leaving the area after the fire and that they would continue to look into that person’s possible connection to the incident. Electricity may have been illegally diverted onto the property, according to the city.

The full report was not immediately made available when we requested it.

A mission and manse where clergy lived, both built in 1910 and later connected by a walkway, were destroyed by the fire. The city, said it had ordered the demolition of the remnants for safety reasons. Japanese American and preservation groups have asked to enter the property to collect any ashes and artifacts.

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A church, barn and two houses remain on land purchased in 1908 by the Furuta family, which operated a goldfish farm and later grew flowers there. The city had identified all six structures as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Mary Adams Urashima, a local historian who has been leading the campaign to turn the Wintersburg settlement into a historic park, said that Republic had allowed the site to fall into neglect and that “lack of security at the property was a root cause for the fire.”

“We believe the question of responsibility for that still remains,” Urashima said.

The city said it had been notified by Republic Services that it intends to “enhance its security of the site.”

Asian American organizations such as Progressive Asian Network for Action held a rally outside the Wintersburg settlement on Saturday in support of its preservation, while taking a stand against anti-Asian incidents.

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Urashima said arson was a real concern for supporters of preserving Wintersburg, given a dramatic rise in anti-Asian incidents in Orange County and vandalism at Buddhist temples across Orange County.

The Wintersburg fire was also worrying to some because of the treatment of Japanese Americans last century.

“Particularly in the World War II era, arson and vandalism was common at residences and businesses,” Urashima said.

More recently, opponents of preserving Wintersburg have posted anti-Asian imagery and posts online, including one that “stated they would burn it effing down to a cinder,” said Urashima, who had also been targeted in anonymous social media posts.

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A black and white photo of two small wooden structures, a manse and a mission. Asian men in suits stand outside the larger mission.
An undated photo of the Wintersburg mission and manse, built in 1910.
(Courtesy Wintersburg Church)

Huntington Beach spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said the city condemns discriminatory language related to Wintersburg and will assist in preservation talks with Republic.

“This is an important historic site within the city and the city accepts that and understands that and we wish to honor that,” Carey said.

Contacted for a response to the city investigation Friday afternoon and asked about next steps, Republic Services said it would provide more information on Monday but has yet to do so.

This story has been updated.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.