Investigators say accelerant covered one side of the house in Willits arson
BASALT – Basalt investigators released more details Wednesday night and Thursday about the house arson in Willits subdivision Jan. 12 but they gave no indication that an arrest is imminent.
Officials with the Basalt Fire Department and Basalt Police Department met with about 15 Willits homeowners Wednesday night to cover a broad range of topics regarding the fire – from the response time to the criminal investigation and the homeowners’ desire to get the charred ruins of the house at 510 Lake Court removed.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said an accelerant, some type of hydro-carbon, covered one side of the house on both stories. He said when he got on scene he could smell white gas, like the type used in a camping stove.
The fire moved rapidly through the house, in large part because an accelerant was used but also because of the type of construction allowed flames to move rapidly along venting and engulf the roof in just a few minutes.
“This wasn’t a house fire. This was a bonfire,” said Basalt Town Manager Bill Kane.
Sgt. Penny Paxton, the lead investigator on the case for the Basalt Police Department, said a definitive pour pattern was visible on the burned exterior of the house. On Thursday, she added that the pattern started on a higher level on the house and went to a lower level.
A dog brought to the scene by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for two days after the fire pinpointed where the majority of the accelerant was used, Paxton said.
The CBI is performing tests to confirm the presence of an accelerant and to determine the type. Paxton said the results aren’t in yet because CBI has other cases with a higher priority, such as those in which a person was injured or killed. Safeco Insurance, which covered the destroyed house, has also pledged to share the results of its independent investigation with police.
Paxton told the Willits homeowners in the meeting at Basalt Town Hall Wednesday night that she believes the fire did more damage than intended by the person that started it. On Thursday, she elaborated that her instincts as a long-time cop and facts collected as part of the investigation suggest to her that the fire got out of hand.
“In my mind, that fire wasn’t supposed to get that big and destroy that whole house,” Paxton said. It is just a theory at this point, she said, and she couldn’t discuss information that points that way.
In an interview last month, the homeowner, Harold “Chip” Unglert, said the fire started in a partially closed storage area on the southwest side of the house, where an old mattress, some leaves and other material had accumulated.
Unglert rented rooms in the house to two other men. Unglert was in a meditation class at the time of the fire. One of the renters was home and escaped uninjured. The other renter was out at the time.
Investigators have said they verified Unglert’s alibi and that the two renters have agreed to take a polygraph test. Paxton said Thursday that the polygraph tests haven’t been given yet because of difficulties coordinating the schedules of the two men and the test administrator.
She assured the homeowners she is pressing hard to build a case and make an arrest. Paxton said it is troubling that someone deliberately started a fire in Basalt that resulted in so much destruction, threatened other property and caused so much dismay.
Safeco Insurance has offered a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fire. No tips have been received by the police department since the reward was offered, Paxton said.
Homeowners at Willits asked the public officials about the nuts of bolts of 911 calls and responses by the fire department. Some homeowners said it seemed like it took a long time for fire trucks to arrive at the scene. Thompson provided a timeline from the communications center which showed the first truck arrived 13 minutes and 9 seconds after firefighters were paged. The fire was reported at 8:19:47 p.m. The on-call fire officer that evening arrived at 8:25:13 p.m. to size up the fire, communicate with responding teams and turn off utilities to the house. The first fire engine on the scene was hooking up to the nearest fire hydrant at 8:33:14 p.m.
As the discussion evolved, several homeowners thanked the fire department for their response and the issue faded away.
The daily reminder of the fire apparently won’t fade away any time soon. The insurance company erected a chain link fence around the wreckage but there has been no indication when the structure will be torn down. The process will likely be complicated because Unglert’s lender started a foreclosure action prior to the fire. Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. claims Unglert defaulted on a loan with $499,972 outstanding on the principal. A foreclosure sale was scheduled for Feb. 9. That was rescheduled to March 16.
Kane said the bank will be highly motivated to clear the lot so it can sell the land, if the foreclosure moves ahead.
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This episode of The Drop-In is filled with fun, fast skiing and great friends!