The fire that destroyed Cunningham’s Ranch House Restaurant in Sonoita is being investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), according to SEFD Chief Joseph DeWolf.
DeWolf, who responded to the fire, which was called into the station at 8:40p.m., May 11, became suspicious that accelerants were used to start the fire shortly after he arrived at the scene. “It looked like we had two fires,” he said. “That’s what made me suspicious.” The restaurant was closed at the time of the fire.
He then called in the Southern Arizona Fire Investigators Association, who arrived on the scene the next morning. A dog trained to sniff out accelerants was brought in from Glendale, AZ, who alerted investigators to three additional spots where accelerants were used to set the fire. The five spots were located both behind and in the building. Chief DeWolf was unable to verify what kind of accelerants were used, as of press time.
The case was immediately turned over to ATF, the federal law enforcement agency which is mandated to investigate cases of arson. “A lot of people have been interviewed,” DeWolf said.
The restaurant suffered flame damage to 30% of the structure, and 100% smoke damage, according to the chief.
Also lost in the fire were two flags belonging to Sonoita American Legion Post 113, one American flag and one Legion flag with streamers bearing the names of deceased Legion members, according to Legionnaire Joyce Taylor.
Firefighters from Sonoita, Patagonia and Whetstone contained the fire to the restaurant,
sparing the two buildings next to it on both the east and west sides. DeWolf credits this to the hard work of the firefighters, and to the fact that SEFD was able to quickly respond with two fire trucks.
One truck, which the department had purchased last August, was on a medical call on Yucca Ash Road when the call came in, so the second truck was dispatched and arrived at the fire in three minutes. The truck that had been on the medical call arrived 10 minutes later. “One truck was in front and one was in back, so we were able to hit the fire from both directions,” he said.
The Ranch House Restaurant has been a fixture in Sonoita since the 1970’s when it was converted from a feed store by Mike Cunningham, according to present owner Jean Lewis. Her parents, Bob and Sarah Cunningham, took it over shortly after that, and it has now been passed down to Lewis and her siblings. The restaurant had been for sale at the time of the fire.
“We need to focus on the good that the owners of the Ranch House did for our communities over the years, and what we can do to help them,” said DeWolf. The restaurant has organized numerous local fundraisers over the years to help families in
need. “Mother’s motto was ‘Nobody goes hungry.’ Whether they have money or not, you take care of them,” Lewis said.
When asked if the family planned to rebuild, Lewis said, “We don’t know what we are doing yet. We are still in shock. Forty years of memories went up in smoke.”