Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Three big fires in Palm Harbor still under investigation

PALM HARBOR — Fire officials continue to investigate three massive blazes in Palm Harbor within the past year.

In September, flames destroyed a 3,000-square-foot, four-story observation tower overlooking St. Joseph Sound at Wall Springs Park.

In March, investigators responded to Frontier Village Mobile Home Park off U.S. 19 N, where three mobile homes, including one that was occupied, were set ablaze.

Later in March, a 23,200-square-foot building that housed more than 40 classic cars, boats and RVs at Florida West Covered Storage went up in flames. Damage was estimated at between $4 million and $5 million, Palm Harbor fire officials said.

The tower blaze and two of the three mobile home fires were ruled suspicious, while the cause of the storage facility fire is still unknown, authorities said.

"We're still actively working all of those cases," said Sgt. Ken Luth of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arson and auto theft unit.

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue, which has 55 firefighters, required the assistance of other agencies to investigate the fires, said Deputy Chief Bob Markford. After Palm Harbor responds to a fire, the department determines if it will need help for the investigation.

All three investigations have involved the Sheriff's Office and the state fire marshal's office. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also responded to the storage facility blaze.

"You pool all of your resources," Markford said, adding that getting assistance from other agencies brings "more eyes, more equipment."

Frank Lowman, Palm Harbor's acting fire marshal, said sheriff's crime scene technicians take photographs of the scene. The Sheriff's Office also handles evidence in fire investigations.

In the Frontier Village cases, sheriff's detectives interviewed residents, and a state fire marshal arson dog inspected the scene. In the storage facility fire, the Sheriff's Office and ATF also conducted interviews, Lowman said.

The Sheriff's Office arson and auto theft unit responds when fire departments in Pinellas County call for assistance, Luth said. The unit, composed of Luth and four detectives, also responds to fires that result in injuries.

"Most fire departments have their own investigators and more often than not they go to the scene first and they determine if it needs further followup," Luth said. "If they deem it to be suspicious, they contact us."

The Sheriff's Office is the lead agency in the observation tower and mobile home park fires because those blazes were classified as suspicious.

Lowman said investigating a fire requires a "process of elimination." Investigators make a list of everything inside a structure that could potentially cause a fire, including electrical outlets, electronics, and paper and wood products. They inspect each item until the source of the blaze is determined.

The Sheriff's Office and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue couldn't reveal much about the investigations because the cases remain open, but they did disclose some details.

A fuel container was discovered in the front area of one of the mobile homes that caught fire at Frontier Village, but it is still unclear if it was used to start the blaze. The mobile home park installed a key pad entrance at the back gate for residents. Property managers are offering a $5,000 reward for any information about the mobile home fires.

"There is some definite evidence that we've uncovered that we are doing further followup on," Luth said.

A retention pond on the east side of the storage facility was drained after a Florida Department of Environmental Protection official found that it was contaminated with "firefighting runoff." Crews also collected soil samples and in April detected chemicals typically found after fuel spills. State officials plan to remove the contaminated soil, said agency spokeswoman Mara Burger.

Anyone with information about the fires is asked to call Palm Harbor Fire Rescue at (727) 784-0454.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. Follow on Twitter @lauracmorel.

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