Condo fire appears suspicious

Fire marshall calls CBI to help investigate blaze at The Ridge

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— City fire officials are handling Monday's condominium fire at The Ridge as if it might have been arson.

Fire Marshall Jay Muhme confirmed Tuesday afternoon that he has called in an arson specialist from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to look into the cause of the fire.

"With what we found out (Monday), and then in interviews today with management, owners and relatives, we have what appears to be a fire of suspicious origin," Muhme said.

The fire broke out at about 3:30 a.m. Monday in an unoccupied unit at the condo building on Storm Meadows Drive. The building is situated on a steep hill overlooking Ski Time Square and the Headwall ski trail. All of the 16 people who were asleep in three of the eight condo units Monday night were safely evacuated. One fireman suffered a sprained ankle while battling the blaze. The flames gutted one unit and caused limited damage to two others. Two downstairs units also sustained heavy water damage.

Muhme said it appears that the fire broke out in Unit 7, a top-floor unit on the western most end of The Ridge. Unit 7 sustained the heaviest fire damage. The fact that the unit has been empty since early August, combined with the apparent speed with which the fire engulfed the structure, aroused Muhme's suspicions. The fire marshall said he has no specific evidence of arson, for example, indications that a fire accelerant was present in Unit 7.

However, there are extenuating circumstances that added to his suspicion, Muhme said. He declined to elaborate on those circumstances.

Muhme said the owner of Unit 7 flew to Steamboat from Illinois and was interviewed on Tuesday. He declined to name the owner of the condominium.

"We have not touched the building," since (Monday's) fire-fighting efforts Muhme said. He explained that he wants to wait for the CBI investigator to begin trying to determine the cause of the fire.

"We want to make sure the evidence is taken care of properly," Muhme said. "They do this kind of thing every day. The last thing you want to have happen is to have a possible criminal case, and then lose your criminal case because you didn't have the manpower and equipment you needed."

The Ridge, managed by Johnston Shipley Management, is equipped with fire detection equipment monitored by Western Security Systems, Inc.

The condominium project has several kinds of fire alarms, Frank Bradley, owner of Western Security said.

The Ridge has smoke detectors, but those are meant to alert the occupants of the condo units only, he said. Additionally there are manual pull stations, that allow people to trigger an "alarm" at Western Security. Alternatively, heat detectors mounted in the condos can alert the dispatcher at the security company. The heat detectors are set to go off at 135 degrees Fahrenheit, Bradley said.

Bradley was working as the overnight dispatcher Monday night because his regular dispatcher had called in sick.

The alarm from The Ridge was first sensed by a digital receiver attached to the phone line at Western Security at 3:32 a.m., Bradley said. The signal was processed by a computer that told him the nature of the alarm. He reacted by pushing a single button that allowed him to pick up the telephone and speak directly to the dispatcher at Routt County Combined Communications.

Bradley said the system does not allow him to tell whether the alarm was initiated by someone pulling the handle on one of the manual stations, or by a heat detector.

Muhme said he had not ruled out the possibility that the fire had been ignited by a lightning strike.

"We haven't ruled out anything," the fire marshall said.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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