Arson Suspected In Tea Garden Fire – February 8, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

F STREET – APD Sgt. Todd Dokweiller was driving past the Tea Garden Apartments on F Street early Wednesday, Feb. 2 at about 2:26 a.m. when he noticed a fire in a stairwell. Acting quickly, Dokweiler turned on his siren to awaken residents, notified the Arcata Fire Protection District and began evacuating residents. As the blaze spread, four apartment buildings were evacuated.

As firefighters from the Arcata Fire Protection District, Eureka Fire Department and the Humboldt Fire District responded to the scene to fight the fire, it quickly spread through two apartment buildings, damaging or destroying at least eight apartments.

After alerting residents and Arcata Fire, Dokweiler assisted residents with exiting the building as flames spread. In an action described by other APD officers as heroic, Dokweiler rescued two women from a third floor balcony. With the only stairwell fully engulfed in fire and flames shooting out from the eaves above them, Dokweiler stood on the retaining wall along F Street, extending himself up to the balcony and allowing his body to be used as a sort of human bridge so that the women could clamber down to safety.

Arcata and University police officers ran door to door, pounding on doors and evacuating residents from the multi-unit complex.

Some students left with only minimal clothing, and sat in University Police patrol cars until shelter was arranged.

Mounting a forceful response, some 25 Arcata Fire District firefighters deployed four engines, a ladder truck and a rescue truck. The Eureka Fire Department had an engine, a ladder truck and a chief officer on scene, along with one Humboldt Fire District engine. Firefighters worked for about two hours before they were able to control the fire.

At least 16 people, 10 of them Humboldt State students, were displaced from their homes as a result of the fire. One resident suffered an injured wrist while jumping to safety from a first floor room and was been treated and released from the hospital.

A firefighter suffered a facial burn, but no other residents were injured and the Red Cross was on scene to assist those that were displaced.

Investigators from the Arcata Police Department and the Arcata Fire Protection District are investigating the fire, which originated in a portable toilet, then spread to  the stairwell in the southernmost apartment block.

Two nights earlier, on Jan. 31 at 12:24 a.m., a fire had broken out in a dumpster at the Tivoli Garden Apartments just one block to the south.

In that instance, an officer pulled the dumpster out from the wall and extinguished it on the spot.

Late last year, a series of 17 deliberately set dumpster fires prompted Arcata Fire to offer a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspected arsonist.

It is not known whether the Tea Garden and Tivoli Garden apartment fires were set by the same individual, though investigators are studying possible links.

An Arcata Fire press release issued Monday afternoon said that investigators had indentified a “person of interest who may be involved,” and that “all of the indicators point to a fire of suspicious origin.”

Dokweiler said there are “A couple folks” seen in the area before and after who “pique our interest.” But, he added, “it’s nobody that we’re ready to call a suspect.”

“It certainly does not look accidental or natural,” said APD Chief Tom Chapman of the fire. he said there were “some similarities” between last year’s dumpster fires and the most recent ones.

“At this point the investigation is wide open,” Chapman said. “I think it’s just a matter of time. We’ll catch a break on it.”

“Given the speed that it worked its way from the bottom to the top of the building, we were very lucky that no one lost their life,” said APD Detective Bob Martinez. “This arsonist, if it is an arsonist, came very close to taking lives.”

Arcata Fire is asking business owners to be diligent about leaving trash and containers outside their businesses.

Residents and business owners are reminded to keep trash cans, recycle bins and dumpsters at least five feet from combustible walls and openings.

Whenever possible, these containers should also be locked and kept in a well lit area.

HSU arranged special assistance for students displaced by the fire, including food, clothing, housing, counseling, class accommodations, and other needs.

The Red Cross is working closely with Humboldt State to provide aid to their students, and is helping the non-students on an as-needed basis.

A new, unfinished nine-unit wing of the Tea Gardens was undamaged in the fire. Construction on that block has been suspended for now.

The fate of the damaged buildings – whether repair and reconstruction or demolition and total rebuilding – is not known, or any timetable. Calls to owner Steve Moser weren’t returned.

Martinez pointed out that the burned buildings’ exteriors now bristle with twigs, driven into the walls by high-pressure streams of water which had passed through trees from firehoses arrayed along 11th Street.

Anyone with information on the fires is asked to call APD at (707) 822-2428.

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