The enormous fuel-depot fire that had firefighters afraid for their lives Monday was deliberately set, officials said.
On Tuesday, investigators walked among the twisted metal and charred ruins of Whitley Fuel LLC’s northeast Spokane complex. They determined that neither lightning nor electrical problems started the inferno, said Chief Bobby Williams of the Spokane Fire Department at an afternoon news conference.
By evening, Williams released a statement saying that physical evidence indicated the fire was intentional.
The three-alarm blaze spit smoke and flames high into the hot evening air Monday. When Lt. Todd Graves arrived after 5 p.m. decked out in bunker gear, the scene was unlike anything he’d seen in 26 years of firefighting.
At a fuel depot with dozens of barrels of petroleum products, it was hazardous to be anywhere near the main fire, Graves said. Images of exploding tanks raced through his mind.
“There are so many things here you couldn’t see, that’s all that was going on in your head when you come into here,” he said.
Graves trudged through the destruction on Tuesday, looking at the two 30-foot-long fuel tanker trailers near the main gate to Whitley Fuel. One was half melted to the ground after catching on fire at the beginning of the blaze. The other damaged trailer contained unleaded fuel until crews drained it Tuesday morning, he said.
For several hours Monday evening, that trailer was a time bomb, Graves said. Firefighters continuously doused it with water to keep the fuel inside from boiling and building up internal pressure.
If it had exploded, it could have shot off in any direction like a cruise missile, Williams said.
“You can’t control where it goes,” he said. “And you have the same thing happening with those 55-gallon drums.”
As crews protected the tanker and the surrounding structures, barrels exploded when motor oil and other liquids boiled inside. They could have shot high into the air, so firefighting was done from the perimeter with ladder trucks. Crews set up gear then returned to relative safety, leaving the water streams unstaffed, Williams said.
A group of two-story-tall fuel tanks on the complex were empty for maintenance. If they had been full, the fire would have been catastrophic, Capt. Roger Libby said.
Williams said there’s no knowing how much of the surrounding area could have been destroyed.
“If we had a catastrophic failure of a container, we could have an explosion and the fireball could encompass a whole block,” said Battalion Chief Mike Inman.
On Monday, the fire involved both the Whitley Fuel complex and Northwest Towing and Superior Towing near the 2700 block of North Pittsburg Street. The nearby Wheelchair Transport company lost half its vehicles, driver Ron Seehorn said.
On Tuesday, fire and Department of Ecology representatives used the Wheelchair Transport building as a headquarters, though some of the windows were blown out.
The Spokane Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting the Spokane Fire Department in the investigation. Forensics specialists from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office tailed fire investigators Tuesday as they looked for clues.
“The scene investigation required the systematic removal of a large amount of fire debris to recover the smallest amount of evidence,” Williams said.
Investigators were focusing Tuesday on a specific area of the Whitley complex to pinpoint the fire’s origin, Williams said. He would not say what areas were of particular interest.
He urged anyone who might have information about the cause of the blaze to call the Fire Department.
“We get pieces to the puzzle, and anyone who gives us pieces of the puzzle helps us see the entire picture,” Williams said.
If somebody is found to be responsible for starting the inferno, the Fire Department could ask for restitution of firefighting expenses, Williams said.
Between 80 and 100 staffers from the Fire Department were called to the scene Monday, though only 58 firefighters had been on duty. Crash response trucks from Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base responded to spray foam on the three-alarm fire, and personnel from surrounding county fire districts moved into the city to cover other emergencies, Williams said.