Investigators probe Willits fire; it spread quickly | AspenTimes.com
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Investigators probe Willits fire; it spread quickly

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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BASALT – Investigators are trying to determine why a fire in a single-family home in Willits spread so quickly and consumed the residence Wednesday night, Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Thursday.

“Something isn’t adding up,” he said. “There’s something wrong some place in the equation.”

The fire department turned the investigation over to the Basalt Police Department, which requested assistance from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, according to Basalt Police Sgt. Stu Curry. Investigators with all three agencies were at the scene at 510 Lake Court on Thursday and will return Friday, Curry said. No cause has been determined or other conclusions reached yet, he said.

Thompson had said Wednesday night that he would turn the investigation over to the police department and CBI because of the magnitude of the fire. He estimated the property loss at $800,000.

Thompson said on Thursday that he also turned the investigation over to law enforcement agencies because of some “unusual” characteristics of the fire. The blaze originated in the southwest corner of the first floor in the two-story residence, he said. Firefighters would typically expect to find what they call a room and contents fire, where it is confined to the area of origination during a short time. Wednesday’s fire spread quickly to other parts of the house.

“Arriving firefighters found flames already shooting from windows on the ground floor, second floor and out of the roof,” says a press release from the fire department. “The roof of the home collapsed approximately one hour after the fire was reported and subsequently caused the second and first floors to collapse into the crawl space of the home.”

The house is owned by Harold “Chip” Unglert. A lender initiated a foreclosure action against Unglert in March 2010, according to the Eagle County Public Trustee’s website. A foreclosure sale was scheduled for Feb. 9, 2011.

Authorities said Unglert had three renters. Only one person was home at the time of the fire, and he escaped without injury.

Curry said the police department got a warrant to search the wreckage of the house Thursday on the advice of the Eagle County District Attorney’s Office. The search warrant was sought as a formality because permission to enter the premise can be revoked by an owner, he said.

The fire was reported at 8:20 p.m. The on-call fire officer who lives nearby was on the scene in six minutes and began assessing the fire, calling in specific equipment, turning off utilities and locating fire hydrants, Thompson said. The first fire engine arrived at the scene at 8:37 p.m.

Thompson said he would like to see a response time of around five minutes for all fires, but that isn’t feasible at night for a mostly volunteer department when personnel aren’t at the stations in El Jebel and Basalt. Some firefighters went from their homes to the fire station to get fire engines, then traveled to Willits. Other firefighters went directly to the scene, Thompson said.

He said he didn’t think a quicker response time would have made a difference Wednesday night because the fire spread so quickly.

Firefighters went into a “defensive mode” when they arrived – spraying the two adjacent houses with water and battling to contain the flames in the burning house. Damage on the adjacent houses was limited to scorched paint and cracked windows.

Willits is a high-density subdivision with just a few feet between houses. The threat of the fire spreading was great, Thompson said.

“What if the wind was blowing? We would have had a hell of a fire on our hands,” he said.

Brenda Wild, president of the Willits Homeowners Association, said some residents brought concerns about the fire department’s response time to her Wednesday night. She contacted Thompson Thursday.

“I’m just trying to understand what happened,” she said.

By her clock, it took longer than 20 minutes for the first fire engine to arrive on the scene, which Thompson disputed. He is retrieving information from the Pitkin County Communications Center to document the response.

Wild was traveling out of town Thursday, but she and Thompson planned to discuss the issue further next week. A topic for community discussion might be whether funds should be made available for the fire department to have on-call firefighters at night, she said.

Thompson and other paid staff of the department are at the El Jebel station during days to answer fire and medical calls. The department also depends on highly trained volunteers to respond to fires, major traffic incidents and other issues. Thompson said he wouldn’t recommend changing how the department operates in this fiscal climate. Many property taxpayers are already feeling the strain of the tough economic times, he said, plus the need isn’t great enough at night to justify paying firefighters to be on-call at the station. A paramedic is on call at night for medical issues.

The flurry of fires this month in the midvalley – four house fires between Jan. 3 and 12 – is an anomaly. There was one minor structure fire in all of 2010, Thompson noted.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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