Lighting Cited As Likely Origin Of Fire
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WATER VALLEY – City officials are citing a lightning strike as the likely origin of last Tuesday’s fire that claimed a historical building on Calhoun Street. The building originally housed Davidson Elementary School from 1955 to 1970 and housed third graders (for almost a decade) after integration.
Water Valley Fire Chief Mark McGavock reported his department was dispatched to the blaze at 7:14 p.m. and within five minutes city fire fighters and the first fire truck were on the scene. The fire chief explained that by that time, the fire had engulfed almost a third of the lower building after initially spreading across the top of the building in a void between the original tar and gravel flat roof and a pitched shingle roof that was added years after the building was constructed.
McGavock and Water Valley Police Chief Jason Mangrum are jointly handing the routine investigation – work that has included talking to witnesses, examining dozens of fire photos and videos, and combing through the rubble in the days following.
McGavock, who is a certified fire investigator, reported that the first known photo taken of the fire and a video of the fire minutes later provided valuable clues in the investigation.
“The first fire picture conclusively shows the fire started on the northeast corner of the building between the roofs,” McGavock explained.
That first photo also shows smoke coming out above the flat roof, but below the rafters of the roof that was added later, providing evidence that the fire started in the void between the roofs. The photo was taken by the 911 caller who reported the fire. The video of the fire taken minutes later, just before firefighters arrived on the scene, showed the fire was spreading fast.
“From the time that first picture was taken it had gone from just rolling across the inside of the ceiling to blowing out the windows and the whole thing was burning,” McGavock explained about the spread of the fire during short time that elapsed between the photo and video.
McGavock reported that weather radar showed a lightning strike in the vicinity during a brief storm two hours before the fire was reported.
“That building was on fire long before it showed itself,” McGavock continued.
He explained that after the lightning strike, the attic slowly heated until the fire was hot enough to penetrate the ceiling below.
“That gave it air, which allowed everything in the attic to light up,” McGavock continued.
When the fire burned through the ceiling, giving it oxygen, it created a flashover as the entire attic between the two roofs ignited.
Fighting the Blaze
McGavock reported that when the first firefighters pulled up, almost a third of the building below the attic was engulfed.
“For a brief moment they thought about entering the middle door and trying to stop it. But before they could get the hose off the fire engine, the fire was already past the middle door,” the fire chief explained.
By then it was already too late to save the building and firefighters concentrated on extinguishing the huge blaze and keeping it from the adjacent former church building
McGavock praised the strong response from firefighters across the county, reporting that volunteers from almost every department in the county responded. The response also included off-duty part-time and full-time city firefighters as the battled raged for almost six hours.
“Our part-timers showed up, our full-timers showed up. We could not have gotten a better response. I can’t thank the county guys enough. The citizens who came and brought us water, I can’t thank them enough,” he added.
Both Mangrum and McGavock reported that part of the investigation was to rule out other scenarios. While the fire was still burning, a juvenile and adult who were on the property were questioned.
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mangrum explained about law enforcement’s early interest in the two people who were on the property one hour before the fire and returned while firefighters were battling the blaze.
McGavock explained they left the property one hour before the fire was reported, which was not enough time for the fire to heat up in the space between the roofs.
Mangrum also said there was no evidence of any material on their clothes that indicated they had crawled through the access panel to get between the two roofs to start the fire. He noted that there would have been evidence of tar from crawling on the original roof to the northeast corner and setting the fire.
Mangrum also told the Herald that few people knew there was an access panel to get to the space between the roofs.
“We had to go back to previous owners of that building from years ago to learn there was access to the attic,” Mangrum explained.
Mangrum also noted that due to the age of the building and stage of renovation, the structure was uninsurable.
“There is no insurance fraud possibility. The current owner had it less than a year and had plans to renovate it,” Mangrum reported.
The chiefs also ruled out fireworks as a possible igniter.
“The pictures prove that was not possible. The fireworks would have set a shingle on fire and there was no flame on the roof,” McGavock explained.
Yet another theory was electric wiring in the building may have been a culprit. This was also ruled out after determining the main breaker to the building was turned off. Records at the electric department showed there had been no electricity usage at the building for almost a year.
“There is no evidence at all that points to arson,” Mangrum explained about the investigation.