Grand Lake fire marshal says no arson, homeowner lucky to be alive
Grand Lake fire officials are saying a fire that destroyed a three-story house and could have killed an inhabitant working in the basement in Grand Lake on Tuesday may have initiated at a new pellet stove the owner had installed in weeks prior.
Grand Lake Fire Protection District Fire Marshall Dan Mayer said the owner was “very, very lucky to escape the fire,” which he initially didn’t know was burning on a floor above him. Mayer said a “commotion” drew the owner’s attention to an upper floor and “when he came up, the whole den area was in flames. He tried to go out a side door but there was too much fire. He barely made it out another door, with two of his three pet dogs (he believes the missing dog died in the fire, but its body has not been located).”
Mayer stressed, however, that fire officials are still looking into the exact cause of the fire.
“We don’t want to imply in any way that the owner did something wrong or is at fault,” he said.
An investigation is still ongoing with the man’s insurance company, but Mayer had some interesting insights to share into how fire departments and fire marshals investigate fires.
“There are a number of things to take into consideration, but typically you can tell the most-burned or worst-damaged areas. There are a bunch of indicators, but in a fire like this, you start at the outside and work toward the origin. Typically, you’ll see that things are more charred and burned the deeper into a structure you go. So you look for evidence of the most intense burning, and sometimes, that will (solve) the question of where it began,” he said.
Mayer added that arson is often not that hard to detect, due to a few obvious factors. “Sometimes, someone will want to burn their house down and they’ll spread gas all over the floor. But we get to the fire, and say, okay, there is no obvious origin. This thing started all over and all at once, and that usually indicates someone tried to start it,” he said.
“Believe it or not, if you walk into a room and pour gas on a floor and light it on fire, even after the fire is out you can still smell the fuel,” he said.
Investigators also work with accelerant-detection dogs that can smell gas. And then there’s sometimes more glaring evidence.
“It’s certain things,” Mayer said. “If we pull up and the owner is sitting there calm as can be with all his clothes and valuables, you’re kinda looking at him like, did he get dressed and prepare to leave the house knowing there was gonna be a fire?”
It was pretty obvious that the Grand Lake homeowner didn’t start his own fire, said Mayer.
“First, we had neighbors call in, saying, ‘There’s a guy coming out of his house frantic with his dogs!’ He also had two snowmobiles that got burned and damaged—he probably wouldn’t have let that happen if he’d started it. And if we got here and all of his expensive stuff is moved and his car is nicely packed, you’re going, ‘Huh.’ So what people (neighbors, first responders) see when they first get there and what they report to you is so important. That guy was lucky that he acted quickly. Fortunately he heard what he did when he did, because if he’d have heard it later, who knows what would have happened.”
Mayer said an insurance agent will visit the house on Monday to determine losses and value. And at the end of his interview, he left this warning: “A lot of house fires start from faulty electrical issues. Sometimes they start burning inside a wall, and the homeowner has no idea. It’s not uncommon for that fire to burn up the wall and into the ceiling. That’s why it’s so important to hire licensed, quality electricians.”
This story has been updated from the print version to reflect a correction in the date of the fire.
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