Three recent fires of unknown origin in the downtown area are a concern to fire department officials because they break a pattern that has existed for several years.
Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell said all three fires appeared to have been the result of arson, but a definite cause is still to be determined.
One of the fires was at the former Young’s Cleaners on Main Street, a second at an auto tint shop in the 300 block of East Harding Avenue and the third at a house in the 100 block of West Harding Avenue.
“All three of those are still under investigation,” Howell said. “All three had insurance and we’re working with insurance investigators on all three.”
Howell said samples have also been sent to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory for analysis but the lab has not sent back results yet.
Regarding the most recent fires not fitting the pattern, Howell said previous suspicious fires have for the most part occurred at vacant or abandoned houses on streets that don’t get a lot of vehicular or foot traffic, while the most recent ones were on streets that get a lot of traffic.
“Hopefully, somebody might have seen something but so far, no one has come forward with any information,” Howell said, adding that fire investigators have also examined security video from surrounding businesses but have had no success with that.
“We’re still working to engage the public to call us if they know anything and there is a reward of up to $2,500 for information that leads to an arrest.”
He said fires such as the one downtown at Young’s not only pose a danger to firefighters and the public, but the aftermath creates “an eyesore and that’s not the way we want our town to be viewed.”
In addition, other agencies such as inspection and zoning and the police department get involved in the investigation and its aftermath.
“We’ve spoken to the owners of Young’s and they’re going to do the right thing in terms of cleaning up because we don’t want to see it left in the state it’s in,” Howell said.
He said the investigation into the fires downtown, and in other places, begin as a process of elimination.
“For example, there are obvious factors like was there cooking going on or was there electricity or heat — all things that could indicate the fire is accidental or that something malfunctioned,” Howell said, explaining that fires that resulted from cooking are the leading cause of residential fires.
“Then, you look to see if there are obvious burn patterns which would be indicative of where the fire started, as well as heavily charred areas, because the longer something burns, the more charring is going to be present,” Howell said. “We try to look and eliminate the obvious first and then get scientific.”
Because two of the fires were at businesses — one open and one closed — Howell said investigators also look to managers and owners to tell them who had access to the building and what they were doing there.
In addition to looking at the potential cause of the fires, Howell said investigators are also looking at a possible motive.
“What would a person gain by doing this?” Howell said. “Was it monetary, to get revenge, or were they just mad? It just doesn’t add up.”
Several years ago, after a series of fires at apartment complexes, the Fire and Emergency Services Department brought in a fire investigators, law enforcement officers and others from across the country who worked as a task force to investigate the fires, and Howell said that idea has been talked about again.
“We will take all the help we can get on this,” he said.
Howell also said the popularity of social media has affected the department’s ability to investigate fires because so much information that appears is not validated before it is spread, and the general public blames the department when the information doesn’t hold up.
“Social media can be very productive if the information is truthful and actually helps us,” he said.
Because of the fires downtown in particular, Howell said the department is constantly checking out the central business district to ensure that the buildings, many of them vacant, are secure.
There are also pre-fire plans for many of those buildings, listing things such as the layout, any unusual design features, the presence of false ceilings or basements and the the buildings contents, if any.
“The more we know about a building going in, the safer it’s going to be for our people and the general public,” he said.
The fact that most of the buildings downtown are close together and aging is also a concern, he said, explaining that, while a building might appear structurally sound, there could be problems such as a leaking roof that weakened the foundation.
In addition, water pressure used to put out a blaze could affect the structure of some of the old buildings, he said.
He said water weighs about eight pounds per gallon and the typical hoses used by the department dispense water at 80 to 100 gallons per minute.
“That can add a lot of weight to a building, particularly to a structure that is not in good shape,” Howell said. “Sometimes what we do to put out a fire can compromise the integrity of the structure.”
For information about fire prevention programs, smoke alarms, home security surveys or other information, contact the department at 543-5150.