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Investigators know what caused church fire, not why

Mar 21, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Investigators are almost finished with their official report on the structure fire that destroyed an old church building and adjacent apartment last week in the 500 block of East Fremont Avenue.

No one was injured in the spectacular blaze, which resulted in two calls to emergency officials - one at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 12, and another at about 9 a.m. that same day. Riverton Volunteer Fire Department chief Mike Hutchison said both incidents originated in the venting system of the church's in-floor furnace, which apparently malfunctioned.

"That's what we really don't know - what happened to cause that," Hutchison said. "We know where it came from, but we don't know why. We probably won't."

The early morning fire was located on the north end of the furnace area, he said. The second, which caused the most damage, likely had been smoldering for days in the walls in a separate part of the building.

"It had gone a totally different direction," he said. "It was completely away from the original fire that we went and put out."

He guessed that the increased air flow that resulted from the initial activity fed the secondary flames and caused them to grow quickly.

"(The fire) was just kind of creeping along through the wall, down real low behind the bottom plates of the wall," Hutchison said. "Then once it got some air movement it was able to grow rapidly and extended directly up into the attic space, which is why there was so much damage."

Hutchison said the clutter in the unoccupied church structure may have made it difficult for firefighters to detect the second blaze during the initial emergency call.

"There was just so much stuff stored in there," he said. "There were just pathways through the building. That was part of the reason that helped obscure the second fire. ... The walls were lined with boxes."

Plus, he said, the flames were confined to the interior of the wall during the earlier incident.

The dual fires are not unusual, he said, but the short amount of time that it took for the second blaze to engulf the building was "out of the ordinary."

Hutchison's assistant chief had checked the area at about 8:30 a.m. last Wednesday, and the property manager was in the building soon after that, according to reports. At about 9 a.m., a Riverton police officer saw smoke coming from the building, and firefighters who returned to the scene at 9:08 a.m. saw smoke and flames coming from the front door, windows and roof.

"That's kind of the reason we were a little suspicious about it," he said. "It was because of the timeframe involved, how quickly it went from undetectable to a full-blown structure fire."

Officials found no sign of accelerants or foul play at the scene, however.

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