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More criminal fires, fewer accidents reported in 2011

Sat., March 10, 2012, midnight

This fire at 2515 S. Timberlane Drive in Spokane Valley was started on Sept. 16 by a discarded cigarette. It was one of 67 accidental fires reported to the Spokane Valley Fire Department last year.
This fire at 2515 S. Timberlane Drive in Spokane Valley was started on Sept. 16 by a discarded cigarette. It was one of 67 accidental fires reported to the Spokane Valley Fire Department last year.

Nearly every number the Spokane Valley Fire Department tracks was up in 2011 – the number of calls, the number of fires, the number of arsons and the number of arson arrests.

Criminal fires, which include arson as well as reckless burning, went up from 49 in 2010 to 60 in 2011. Investigators solved 26 of those cases and made 23 arrests. An additional 14 people were cleared by “exceptional means,” which refers to the inability for the person to be arrested because of age, mental capacity or some other factor.

The number of arsons can jump because of a fluke, said assistant fire marshal and fire investigator Clifton Mehaffey. In 2011 there were several reports of flag burnings, and two juveniles were arrested and charged with five of the incidents.

“They actually did more than that,” Mehaffey said. That case alone accounted for about half of the increase in arsons over 2010. “If we get kids in the summertime lighting grass fires, it skews the numbers,” he said.

Not all calls classified as criminal fires actually involved fires. “We had one guy who was making explosives in an apartment in Millwood,” he said.

The FBI tracks only first- and second-degree arsons nationwide. Spokane Valley Fire had 49 of those calls in 2011, and their clearance rate of 37 percent is two times the national average, Mehaffey said. “That’s outstanding,” he said.

The department has four fire investigators on call 24 hours a day and recently added a new staff member – an accelerant-sniffing dog named Mako. Another fire investigator is still in training. “We do fairly well,” Mehaffey said of the department’s solve rate. “We dedicate people and time to it.”

Mako has been a bonus. He can check a room faster than a person using an electronic device that samples the air. Investigators might use the mechanical “sniffer” only in obvious areas because of the amount of time it takes, Mehaffey said. “(Mako) can do a whole floor of a building,” he said. “He might catch ignitable liquids where I might not even look. He’s a tool that tells us where to take samples.”

Mehaffey now routinely writes search warrants as part of the department’s investigations, which was done rarely before 2005. He also frequently works with the Spokane and Spokane County SWAT teams.

“Having those relationships make things so much better,” he said. “We don’t kick in doors for a living. I put the credit on most of the other agencies we work with mostly because that’s what they do for a living and we’re just a couple of guys.”

There’s also one other factor in the department’s high solve rate.

“Sometimes you just get lucky,” he said.

The only number that dropped in 2011 was the number of accidental fires, down to 67 in 2011 from 72 in 2010. The biggest accidental fire was at a medical office building at 12509 E. Mission Ave. It was damaged by a fire and explosion Sept. 19. The fire caused an estimated $3 million in damages, blowing out windows and displacing several medical offices.

Witnesses said they saw and smelled smoke before two loud booms were heard. It was obvious early on that the fire began in a “med gas” room that included canisters of oxygen and nitrous oxide, Mehaffey said.

There were two shut-off valves for the tanks, one in the hall and one on the tank itself, Mehaffey said. The cause of the fire was traced to adiabatic compression heating, which means that when the system was turned on in the morning by an employee, the pressure surge of gas into the lines created enough friction to start a fire. “Apparently in the field of medical gases, they know about it,” Mehaffey said.

The fire caused at least one of the sturdy steel canisters to explode with enough force to rip it apart and shoot a large chunk of the tank out a window. The metal doors to the room were folded in half and blown outward. Walls were also blown outward. Pieces of debris were found up to 60 feet away from the building.

A fire investigator automatically responds to any working fire with flames and smoke showing or if a fire causes more than $5,000 in damage, appears suspicious, causes a fatality or serious injury, or could lead to a lawsuit. A battalion chief can also request that an investigator respond.

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