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One of the six historic structures at the Wintersburg Japanese Mission in Huntington Beach caught fire Friday and sustained heavy damage, officials said.

The manse in 1910, near the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission (right). Both were wooden structures, constructed of old growth redwood. (Photo courtesy of Historic Wintersburg).

Multiple buildings built from about 1902 to 1947 by Orange County’s Japanese-American pioneer community sit hidden behind fences on the Historic Wintersburg property at the corner of Warner Ave. and Nichols Lane in Huntington Beach. (Photo by NICK AGRO, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)

Mary Adams Urashima explains the history of the Furuta home, built in 1912 on the Historic Wintersburg property, which was home to a large Japanese-American pioneer community in Huntington Beach. (Photo by NICK AGRO, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)

The site in 2014 was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America and in 2015 the first and only National Treasure in Orange County by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Friday’s fire has reignited fears from historians and archeologists that the history held there may soon be gone.
Although firefighters were able to put out the flames in about 20 minutes, the 112-year-old manse (parsonage) where the clergy, such as Rev. Sohei Kowta and his wife Riyo Kowta, lived in the manse from 1938 until his interrogation by the FBI and incarceration in 1942, was heavily damaged by the flames and a portion of it bulldozed. The fire had started around 9 a.m. at the site near Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane.
Since 2016, anti-Japanese sentiments have been posted in an “orchestrated online harassment” to target the preservation efforts, said Mary Urashima, historian and chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation effort. There is concern the fire could have been racially motivated, Urashima said Saturday.
The manse at Historic Wintersburg was lost today to fire. #JapaneseAmerican #NationalTreasure #HistoricWintersburg and our partners, Preserve Orange County & Heritage Museum of Orange County, call for an arson investigation and explanation.
STATEMENT: https://t.co/JFrf5UmHm7 pic.twitter.com/Z8YWAd1mJv
— Historic Wintersburg (@WintersburgHB) February 26, 2022

An arson investigation is automatically triggered when a fire occurs, but the results of the investigation can vary from a few days to a few weeks, said Jennifer Carey, a spokesperson for the city of Huntington Beach. The investigation was ongoing.
To ensure the safety of firefighters entering the structure, the Fire Department requested the owner of the private property, Republic Services of Huntington Beach, to assist with removing a portion of the building so firefighters could get behind it and ensure there was no opportunity for rekindling and to protect surrounding historical structures, said Carey.
The request would not have been made if further investigation on site for arson was still needed, she said.
Patricia Singer, vice president of the Ocean View School District board, said she is concerned that removing parts of the structure could hinder an arson investigation.
Both Singer and Urashima charged that what they call the neglect of the property by Republic Services has been disappointing.
“It makes no sense that they have been sitting on this property when we’re here offering to pay for it,” said Urashima. The Historic Wintersburg Preservation is working with regional and national partners on the stewardship of the property under the umbrella of the Heritage Museum of Orange County who they have partnered with.
Republic Services did not comment on claims from the preservation group that it had disengaged from these discussions in past years.
“On Friday, a minor structure on the Historic Wintersburg property caught fire. Republic Services is grateful to the Huntington Beach Fire Department, which quickly extinguished the blaze. Thankfully it appears that everyone is safe. We are working with the Fire Department as it investigates the incident,” said a Republic Services statement.
Urashima said it is incorrect to call the structure “minor,” highlighting each of the six structures and the entire property were designated as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in the City of Huntington Beach General Plan and the National Park Service, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preserve Orange County also confirmed their historic significance.
Everyone on the property was forcibly removed and incarcerated during World War II, said Urashima. “This makes it a site of conscience and a sacred site.”
The Ocean View School District had previously been in litigation with the property’s previous owner in an effort to help preserve the site.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the dates that Rev. Sohei Kowta and his wife Riyo Kowta lived at the manse. 
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