Russian River fire officials are expanding their investigation into a string of blazes that destroyed or seriously damaged three homes, a public health center and a shuttered inn over 10 days.
Federal investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined the probe to find out who started a fire in the middle of the night Saturday that partially gutted the Russian River Health Center, a key hub for medical services in west Sonoma County.
The town has been struck by five predawn fires since Dec. 17. Two of the fires seem to have legitimate causes, but three are suspicious, said Max Ming, Russian River and Forestville fire chief.
The timing and proximity of all five fires — including three downtown within a few blocks — have raised officials’ level of concern.
“Our suspicious radar is still up right now on all of these,” Ming said.
It’s too early to say whether there is a fire bug at work, or if homeless residents started any of the fires in an attempt to warm themselves, or if it’s a strange run of coincidence, or a combination of all three factors, fire officials said.
“We’ll see what happens the rest of the week. If nothing else happens we may be in the clear,” Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.
The fires have all occurred in the jurisdiction of Russian River Fire District. Ming has called in help from Sonoma County sheriff’s detectives, a Sonoma County fire investigation task force, federal agents, Cal Fire and the state fire marshal’s office. Video surveillance footage from a business near the health center also has become part of the effort.
The fires follow a suspicious Nov. 12 blaze at old St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Monte Rio. The church fire was deemed a possible arson when firefighters found it had been broken into just before the blaze, which started on a closet floor. That case remains under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.
The main focus of the current investigation involves Saturday’s blaze at the Russian River Health Center on Third Street, Sunday’s Morningside Drive house fire and the Dec. 20 fire at the New Dynamic Inn, where firefighters found four fires set at the structure.
The health center was a total loss, according to West County Health Centers, which operated the clinic. It will continue to offer services to Russian River Health Center patients and will rebuild as quickly as possible, clinic officials said Monday in a statement. Information can be found on the West County Health Centers website at www.wchealth.org.
The health center fire was started by an unknown person in a utility closet where garbage cans and other items were kept, Ming said. Investigators have not determined if the fire was started on purpose or if it was an accident, started perhaps by the disposal of something that sparked the flames. Nor have they determined if it was started by someone who broke into the center to get warm.
A surveillance video from a nearby store showed two people in the area at about the time of the fire, Ming said.
Damage to the New Dynamic Inn building also was significant. At least four fires were set at that property, one apparently outside and three more inside — two fires in one room and a third about 50 feet away, Russian River fire Capt. Rob Cassady said.
“Were they trying to keep warm or trying to burn the place down?” Cassady said, describing one question that investigators are trying to answer.
A cyclone fence encircles the vacant inn at Mill and Main streets, which had been closed while awaiting a remodel. Inside, firefighters found ample evidence it has been frequented by homeless people.
The run of fires started in the Russian River area on Dec. 17 with a house fire on Old Monte Rio Road. The fire was initially considered suspicious; further investigation showed a faulty floor heater was to blame.
Since then, Russian River area firefighters have barely been able to get their gear cleaned off before they’ve rushed to the next structure fire.
“It is a suspicious fire,” Ming said. “The Sheriff’s Office came by to help us process some items. We’re getting a lot of help on this one too.”
Investigators from the Sonoma County Fire Investigation Task Force joined Sunday’s effort and although the structure was reduced to rubble, they homed in on a back area of the hillside home where it appeared the fire could have started, Ming said.
Investigators also ruled out an electrical problem. At least one witness told firefighters they had heard people talking in the area during the night, he said.
The property is a vacation home for an Oakland resident, and no one was staying in the home at the time. The owner said he’d remodeled the 1,300-square-foot home, and Ming estimated the loss at $600,000.
On Dec. 20 there was no break between the two Mill Street fires, which ignited within a few blocks of each other in downtown Guerneville.
Firefighters first were called to a house fire at about 2 a.m., which was well underway when firefighters arrived. “It looked suspicious to us. There had been issues in the past with people breaking in. The door was ajar and open,” Ming said. “After daylight and further review, (we found) it started in the kitchen behind the refrigerator.”
About midway through that fire-suppression effort, a call came in reporting another fire, just a few blocks away at the old inn. Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman and a Forestville fire crew peeled off from the house fire to check on the new fire and found flames on an outside wall and the additional separate fires inside.
“Given the string of fires and our heightened awareness, I’d like everyone to be on their toes,” Ming said. “Be a little more vigilant. Watch for people who shouldn’t be in the area. If you have home surveillance videos, offer them up if necessary.”
The fire spree goes well beyond typical statistics, he said. “Six in a year would be a crazy situation. In two weeks, that’s not OK.”