Rags soaked in house stain likely caused the fire that destroyed two homes and heavily damaged two others Monday night, Fire Inspector Doug Shaffer said.
No one was injured in the fire, which started at about 8:30 p.m. in The Enclave subdivision on Spring Valley Drive, but firefighters worked until 2:30 a.m. to extinguish it.
Inspectors began investigating the cause of the fire Thursday. They discovered that painters had stored a plastic box of stain-soaked rags in an entryway between the fourth and fifth unit of the five-unit building. They think the fire started there, ignited the end unit and spread to the adjoining ones.
The stain contained organic compounds that will generate heat and combust under the right conditions, Shaffer said.
"It was the right combination of stain, rags and not too much air but not too little air, either," he said.
Landscaping mulch near the entryway also was soaked with stain and probably contributed to the fire, he said.
Investigators determined that there was no willful intent to cause a fire. The paint contractor who owned the equipment knew of the fire danger involved with stain and usually soaked the rags in water, Shaffer said, but the painters neglected to do so in this instance.
"The contractor was very cooperative and willing to help and answer questions," he said.
Stain-soaked rags causing fires is a common problem in Steamboat Springs, Shaffer said. Usually, the problem occurs when people are wiping spilled stain with a rag.
"A couple of years ago, we had a similar problem up at the cabins near Lake Catamount," he said.
No one was in the five-plex when the fire started, and all the units are owned by out-of-town residents. Marlene and Kenneth Richmond of Wilmette, Ill., the owners of the end unit, were in town at the time of the fire. None of the other owners was in Steamboat on Monday.
The fire drew hundreds of curious onlookers to the scene, hampering firefighters' response, Steamboat Springs Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble said.
--To reach Kristin Bjornsen, call 879-1502