Clues to destructive fire frozen in plastic

  • By Chris Fyall Enterprise editor
  • Tuesday, January 6, 2009 6:16pm

The three-alarm blaze that destroyed an Edmonds home during the Dec. 18 snowstorm was sparked accidentally in an adjoining shed used to make biodiesel, fire officials have concluded.

But investigators may never know what actually started the fire in the 9500 block of Forrest Dell Drive, because important clues are now encased in big, droopy piles of melted plastic.

A series of cone-shaped polyurethane vats, used by the homeowner to wash chemicals in the biodiesel process, completely melted in the fire, said Mike Smith, the acting fire marshal for the Edmonds Fire Department.

Beneath the tanks were electrical components like tank heaters and extension cords that might have been faulty, and could be to blame in the fire, Smith said.

Now, both the tanks and the components are frozen together into heaps of solid plastic, possibly locking the clues away forever.

Investigators cut the plastic heaps out of the floor and sent them to a laboratory, where more information could be gleaned. But, because the fire was started accidentally, the fire department’s investigation is essentially over, Smith said.

“Really, ours is a cause and origin investigation,” he said. “From that point on, it is really between the property owner and the insurance company.”

In the year before the fire, the homeowners spent thousands of dollars building their biodiesel production facility, they said. Three of the family’s cars run on biodiesel.

About 120 gallons of biodiesel were consumed in the blaze, which destroyed almost all of the family’s possessions, officials said.

Biodiesel is a combustible liquid, but is safer than natural gas or gasoline — both of which are legal to store, in certain amounts, inside residential homes, Smith said.

“We are concerned about (biodiesel production),” he said. “But people can have up to 600 gallons (of propane) available for the stove, and what’s to say a homeowner doesn’t have a bunch of 5-gallon gasoline bottles in his garage?”

“It is not near as volatile as gasoline, or propane, or natural gas, but it will burn, obviously,” Smith said.

Neighbors knew the husband as the Biodiesel Guy, and fire officials agreed that he had undergone extensive safety training.

The city of Edmonds does not require any permits for biodiesel production, and the attached shed was also too small for the city to get involved, said Duane Bowman, the city’s development services director.

At least two factors contributed to the size of the blaze, fire officials said.

First, icy roads meant that fire crews took twice as long to respond to the home as they normally would have — eight minutes, instead of three or four, said Edmonds assistant fire chief Mark Correira.

Secondly, the home’s natural gas meter was damaged to the point where it was free-flowing, so it was sending directly into the fire about 60 times the amount of natural gas needed to keep a stove burner lit.

“It was blowing into the fire and feeding it,” Smith said. “It didn’t start it, but it added to it.”

Reporter Chris Fyall: 425-673-6525 or

Talk to us