Thorough Investigation into Washington School Fire

Not much is left among the charred remnants of Crestline Elementary School in Washington. A hollowed-out gymnasium, seared school books and memories – while seemingly scrapped in the cold, damp ash – are fuel for the fire’s investigation.

The Vancouver Fire Department is working with the Vancouver Police Arson Task Force and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to pool evidence and test theories on how the Cascade Park school was destroyed in the early morning of Feb. 3.

Colene Domenech, resident agent in charge of the Portland ATF office, says investigations for large-scale fires are detailed and time-consuming. People wanting immediate answers – who watch this sort of thing on TV – often don’t understand the depth of work involved in solving a fire.

“This is not like ‘CSI.’ You don’t get answers in an hour,” she said.

Each agency does its part by sharing information to further the investigation, leading to a hypothesis about what happened and, ultimately, testing to see if it rings true.

It’s science, Domenech says.

Officers with the Arson Task Force interview neighbors about what they saw from their homes surrounding the school. Questions like, “What direction were the flames going?” and “Where did the fire appear to originate?” The 38 responding firefighters talk about what they saw and did during the blaze. If they noticed any open doors or windows, or opened one while fighting the blaze, that could help determine how the fire started and moved through the building.

“We have to put all that into a timeline. It’s a very intensive process we go through,” Domenech said.

The 50 Crestline teachers and staffers have to describe the contents and construction of their areas that may have added to the fire’s fuel load. Every little detail is taken into account: school books lining the shelves; combustive chemicals stowed away in cupboards; whether the flooring was carpet or vinyl; where the heating ducts, fire alarms and sprinklers were located.

Investigators sifted through the rubble and processed the site for a couple of days following the fire, Domenech said. It’s similar to any other house fire investigation, but with a 43,995-square-foot school, the scale is much larger.

“You really have to factor out a whole series of other possibilities,” Domenech said.

At the National Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Md., the ATF will try to reconstruct the part of the building most damaged by fire and reset the fire in a controlled setting. The small-scale structure is made out of the same materials as the school, which was built in 1971 with a brick exterior and blue metal roof.

Recreating weather conditions proves more challenging. While industrial fans can mimic wind direction and speed, matching humidity is another hurdle.

“We try to get things as close to realistic as we can,” Domenech said. “You have real-life limits. I can’t make it rain inside a warehouse.”

While investigators face constant challenges and questions throughout their quest to solve the Crestline fire, Domenech says the involved agencies are working as quickly as they can. It could take months before they find a possible cause.

After more than 500 students and staff were displaced by the three-alarm fire, Evergreen Public Schools dispersed them to other area schools. A new school building is not expected until the fall of 2014. As the Crestline community settles into its interim campuses, questions are still fresh on the mind. Why? What happened?

Domenech lauded the efforts of Vancouver firefighters and police saying, “If there are answers to be found, they can definitely find them.”