Arson fires set challenges for investigators

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

When arson is declared as the cause of a fire, it does not necessarily mean someone will be arrested. First, investigators must prove arson; then, they must prove who did it.

That can be almost impossible at times.

From 1994 to August 2001, Central Emergency Services classified 18 of 183 calls as arson. The calls included structural, auto and wildland fires, as well as others.

"Even less than 10 percent are considered 'undetermined,'" said Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale.

"If you can't prove the hypothesis, you have to be satisfied with 'undetermined,' even if you suspect foul play," he said.

The most recent arson fire was at 12:07 a.m. Wednesday. CES received a report from a pedestrian, who noticed a two-by-two foot fire burning on the ground in front of Peninsula Eye and Cataract Clinic. Flames were four- to five-feet high.

CES dispatched three fire engines, one medic unit and two command vehicles to the location at 161 N. Binkley St. in Soldotna.

Gas was poured on the asphalt up to the building, Hale said. CES collected samples of the flammable liquid for analysis and sent the samples to Anchorage.

CES has no suspects yet, but investigators are working on a couple of leads, Hale said.

The interior of the building sustained no structural fire damage and little smoke damage, he said. On the ground level there were some flames that damaged the wood-siding and a window was broken for the firefighters to gain access.

"It could have been a severe structural fire," Hale said. "The gentleman is credited for discovering the fire."

Dr. Peter Cannava uses the lower level for the eye clinic and the upstairs rooms are leased. One sleeping occupant was in the building at the time of the fire. While firefighters were canvassing the building, the gentlemen startled them after awaking from the commotion, Hale said.

Another recent fire still under investigation was at the Kenai Dental Clinic early on the morning of Sept. 22.

Investigators still are trying to find more information before they can positively say what happened to the building.

"We don't know 100 percent for sure what we have," said Kenai Fire Marshal James Baisden. "We can't say it's arson, then turn around and it's not."

The cause of a fire at Pizza Pete's in Soldotna on Oct. 10, 2001, also has yet to be determined.

There were two fires early that morning. The first one was at 1:30 in the basement utility room where combustible rags were found under a baseboard heater; it was accidental in origin.

The second fire involved extensive damage and occurred at 6:50. The cause of the second fire has not been determined because the area where the fire began is unsafe to dig in. If the nearly three feet of fire debris were to be removed it would impact the stability of the wall it rests under, Hale said.

"It's a serious safety factor," he said.

"The insurance company is not willing to spend the extra money to reinforce the wall. We may never know the cause," he said.

The state fire marshal's office or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will become involved in cases where there is an economic impact, such as a fire in a building the community uses on a daily basis, injuries, fatalities or in large-scale fires, fires that effect multiple businesses or destroy a large square footage.

When the fire department does not have investigators, the state fire marshal's office will conduct the investigation.

CES and the Kenai Fire Department have their own certified fire investigators.

Because the fire departments do not have enforcement powers they rely on law enforcement agencies to help with the investigations.

Business fires have more of an effect than residential fires on a community, said Carol Olson, regional supervisor for the Alaska State Fire Marshal office. Arson fires also tend to be a problem with small remote cabins, she said.

All business and residential fires are subject to the same investigative process.

"We treat all fires the same and keep an open mind at all times," Hale said.

Investigators start on the outside and work their way inside to find where the fire began and its cause. They collect all the information and form a hypothesis, then they try and prove if the fire was accidentally or intentionally set.

The investigators look for burn patterns or V-patterns to back their hypothesis. The patterns from accidental fires will be different than those from a fire intentionally set by a flammable liquid.

Fires burn up and out, Hale said. Investigators look at the fire load, or what was in the room to cause the intensity of the flame. They look for any type of combustible or flammable liquid.

"Burns are deeper in those areas with flammable liquids," Hale said.

This can give more information if it is a possible arson case.

"If there are trail marks of liquid, it raises red flags -- multiple red flags," he said.

All electrical, mechanical, human-factor, accidental or intentional denominators need to be eliminated, Hale said.

"Suspicious fires have to be put 'undetermined,'" he said. "With enough time and effort you could determine a cause of the fire."

But knowing the cause in an arson fire does not explain who started it.

This means investigators have to depend on circumstantial evidence and eyewitnesses to find the arsonist.

Many times investigators do not want to announce arson as the cause because they are still rounding up witnesses, or they do not want to trigger a suspect to flee, Olson said.

"We come out knowing it is arson, but absolutely can't say anything," she said.

Investigators will interview everyone involved and wait for tips.

"It's not common to burn something down without reason," Olson said.

The fire departments do not have enforcement powers so they leave interviewing to the police department within city limits and state troopers outside city limits.

"Sometimes we can't make determinations for weeks or months," Olson said.

It is not uncommon for a witness to be missing in this transient state, she said.

"To catch people is always difficult," said Nikiski Fire Chief Daniel Gregory.

Arson can be because of profit, spite or pyromania, he said.

"It's not illegal to be stupid," he said.

If someone makes a mistake in a business or home "what's to say it was intentional or ignorance?" Gregory said.

Complicating the investigation is the fact that much of the evidence is burned. The heat from the fire will even eliminate the oil in fingerprints.

Catching those responsible is the difficult part of arson fires, so investigators often depend on tips and leads from witnesses.

The North Star Lodge in Nikiski burned in 1997; it was being proposed as the site of a halfway house. The cause was declared to be arson. Although the person responsible was never caught, numerous calls from tipsters were made about possible suspects and a man overheard talk of burning down the lodge in a local bar, according to news reports at the time.

No one was ever arrested and charged with the fire.

"People must come forward and be willing to go to court," Gregory said.

Along with tips, investigators look at the circumstances surrounding the fire, including the financial status of the owner, motive, if the owner is going through a divorce, the economy, if the building has been up for sale, or controversies surrounding the structure.

The Ninilchik Traditional Council office burned down in 1997, destroying many of its records. Investigators declared it an arson fire.

At the time some members of the council were complaining of nepotism, inefficiencies and abuse of power and funds. The council also had taken controversial stands on Cook Inlet oil leasing and subsistence rights.

A person was arrested and charged with the arson fire, according to Olson. Troopers were unable to locate further information about the arrest.

Six or seven years later, something might surface from an individual, Hale said. He still holds on to files from 1993, when he took over fire prevention for CES.

The files are left open indefinitely, he said.

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