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Crow Hill fire is 18th suspicious blaze in two months

Rewards being offered for information leading to arrests in arsons

Posted: July 2, 2011 - 10:51pm
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Capital City Fire & Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager sifts through debris from Friday's early morning fire at Crow Hill Condominiums. This is the 18th suspicious fire in the past two months according to Jager. Rewards are offered for information leading to an arrest or conviction on any of the incidents via the Juneau Crime Line at 586-4243. Tipsters can remain anonymous. "The littlest, most seemingly trivial, piece of information is sometimes the most powerful and helpful," Jager said.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Capital City Fire & Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager sifts through debris from Friday's early morning fire at Crow Hill Condominiums. This is the 18th suspicious fire in the past two months according to Jager. Rewards are offered for information leading to an arrest or conviction on any of the incidents via the Juneau Crime Line at 586-4243. Tipsters can remain anonymous. "The littlest, most seemingly trivial, piece of information is sometimes the most powerful and helpful," Jager said.

Nearly everything Capital City Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal Dan Jager touched on Friday turned to dust, and what did not hardly resembled the item it should have been. That is the power of fire and that is the world in which Jager works. For the past two-and-a-half months he has crouched, crawled, dug, and sifted through 18 suspicious fires.

“They are all different sizes,” Jager said. “They run the gamut. At this time we can’t relate them to one individual but we are piecing it together with the police department as far as finding similarities. Both agencies are looking at stuff.”

The latest was Friday’s Crow Hill Condominium parking structure, or what one Crow Hill resident called, “A parking lot in hell.”

The multiple vehicle fire burned so hot at Crow Hill that one tenant could feel the heat inside her apartment directly across the street. The sloping hillside could have led to leaking fuel flowing and igniting multiple residences.

“I was awake and my cats were acting kind of strange,” tenant Alice Leuchte said. “I got up and smelled something strange and thought I left the stove on. I went towards the front door and looked out and there was this wall of flames and you could feel the heat. I dialed 911 and scrambled for a wet towel. You could hear things popping and exploding. It was kind of shaking the outer walls. The dispatcher was great and calming and trying to get me to exit the building, but there was no way I was walking out that front door.”

Another tenant in a building adjacent to the carport had the leaves of a tree burn and window caulking soften.

“I have never been so terrified,” the tenant said “Another five minutes and our building would have been on fire. The first responders on scene saved us all.”

Witnesses described a huge orange fireball.

Jager’s footprints as he walked along the debris perimeter were highlighted with grey burn residue, a mixture of metal, wood, plastic, and rubber. Luckily no residents were injured. Any injury suffered by a responder can lead to a felony charge. At Crow Hill one CCF&R responder was sent to Bartlett Regional Hospital for breathing problems and later released.

“This is getting serious,” neighbor Dan Gowdy said. Gowdy lives near Crow Hill and nearer still to a suspicious vehicle fire at 1501 5th Street in Douglas. “We were just one house away. It’s just a matter of time before one of these places catches on fire with all these little firebugs running around. We are throwing up cameras.”

Jager agreed a camera is a good thing.

“Vehicle fires can burn hotter,” Jager said. “Especially in this situation because you have multiple vehicles.”

Jager said the multiple fuel sources, the plastics and foam inside a vehicle, the car tires, and then a wood structure covering it intensified the blaze.

The fire was so hot that trees on the perimeter had scorching patterns on leaves, and mailboxes were melted on door paths roughly 50 feet away.

“The amount of heat one vehicle alone puts off is pretty impressive,” Jager said. “So when you have all these vehicles packed in it kind of builds off of itself.”

Jager said the real challenge of doing fire investigations is that the majority of the time it is just a big burned-out spot. He compiles notes, compares them to interviews and takes photos.

The photos are printed off and looked at over and over. Multiple trips are made to the site. Burn patterns on vehicles and wood are examined. Burn patterns on the surrounding grass and vegetation. The amount of heat on each tree and each building reveals a clue.

“We look at so many aspects,” Jager said. “The thing that makes it challenging is there are so many different variables. It is considered a science.”

It is a lengthy science as well and that does not always sit well with the public. And if evidence is found and collected it is sent to the State crime lab and another lengthy scientific process is involved. And just because it is a fire case doesn’t mean it has priority over any other.

“We can’t always figure out what causes all of them,” Jager said. “It’s unfortunate, but sometimes we can’t explain it. We can show where it started but we may not have the real idea why it started.”

“Follow up is happening as we speak,” JPD Sgt. Paul Hatch said. “We’ve assigned it to investigators and it is being actively investigated. No suspects at this point, but based on the fire marshal’s determination we believe it is arson.”

Hatch said the JPD had talked to tenants and witnesses and was working closely with CCF&R on all the fires. The JPD Crime Line web site, or JPD at 586-0600, is another tool at both agencies disposal. Callers can remain anonymous, and tips that lead to an arrest or conviction pay handsomely.

“Anyone who has any information it would be a huge help,” Jager said. “No matter how small it might seem we will follow up on everything we get calls on because we just don’t know. If anyone has any information, if they were here, if they saw anything, if they were here right before the fire got called in that is a huge help, if they have friends or family that have talked about it, anything.”

Jager stated that interviews are huge in the investigation. Witnesses can describe the color and how big the flames were which identifies what types of fuel burned. It can reveal a flames characteristics.

“We do a lot of interviews,” Jager said. “The first fire personnel in are important too. Where they saw the first fire and the most fire. The rest of it is just observation of the overall fire scene and looking at burn patterns. Trying to figure out from the least damaged area to the most damaged, pinpointing where and how it started.”

Multiple service calls around the city limited the first responders to just four individuals.

“I was one of the first official personnel here,” Jager said. “There was already a crowd of people from everyone who lives around here.”

Jager said those first witnesses may have seen something or someone unusual in the area. JPD and CCF&R have scoured the surrounding woods and complex in search of clues. Anything from a discarded gas can, or a footprint, to an extinguished match or cigarette, or even the vapor of an accelerant on a branch can be information.

“It can be the most minute thing that can make the biggest difference,” Jager stated. “And as we go through this debris we do it carefully, we can’t just shovel it aside. Fire investigations are not a quick cut and dried type of thing.”

Jager pointed out the opposite end poles of the former parking structure, nearly black through and through except for small brown portions facing out and away, and the center pole burnt to the ground.

“It is giving us a V pattern,” Jager said. “But we still need to consider wind direction at the time, fuel loads of the vehicles at the time, mechanical or electrical problems, other materials in the structure. There are still a lot of variables and they can all intensify things.”

Automobile remnants of the blaze appeared to be in an apocalyptic morgue setting as Jager knelt by each, peered into each, his gloved hand invading someone’s world he otherwise would not see.

“Another thing people need to realize is that just because a fire occurs doesn’t mean that all the evidence is burned up,” Jager said. “Burn patterns are visual evidence and there is always something left behind at a fire scene.”

A Honda SUV, Ford pickup, Ford Mustang, Toyota 2-door pickup, an older Subaru, and a new Subaru Forester had been totaled.

Damage was estimated at more than $150,000, and soon insurance companies will send their own investigators.

The vehicle owners are also being interviewed to see if they saw something when they parked or drove in, or if they have angered someone who wanted revenge.

The new Forester was the furthest from the blaze. It suffered melted windows, light coverings, tires, seat coverings and panelings and what the heat didn’t get, the smoke did.

In a last feeble struggle to function, it’s car alarm still sounded, albeit briefly, and for no apparent continuing disturbance.

“It has been doing that,” Jager said. “Off and on all day.”

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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