A fire that gutted a 13,000-square-foot auto shop in San Diego last week, leaving in its wake $3.5 million in damages, was determined to be arson, federal investigators confirmed Friday.
For the past week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD), Metro Arson Strike Team (MAST), and National Response Team (NRT), have been sifting through the building, investigating the cause of the March 28 fire.
The large team of investigators includes special agents, certified fire investigators, fire protection engineers, chemists, forensic mappers, accelerant detection canine teams, and other specialists.
"After examining all the evidence, it was determined the cause of the fire to be incendiary, meaning it was intentionally set and is considered an act of arson," the ATF said in a press release Friday.
The case is now an ongoing criminal investigation. The ATF said the NRT would leave San Diego today; ATF San Diego special agents will continue to work jointly with the San Diego Metro Arson Strike Team (MAST) to investigate the case and figure out who is responsible for the fire.
On Friday, investigators confirmed that security cameras form a business nearby may have picked up the person responsible for setting the blaze.
Off Road Warehouse owners tell NBC 7 if the suspect is who they think it is, they expect an arrest to be made soon.
On March 29, the SDFD said more than two dozen agents with the NRT and Los Angeles branches of the ATF would join the investigation into the fire that had destroyed the Off Road Warehouse on Balboa Avenue in Kearny Mesa a day earlier.
By March 30, the joint investigation was fully underway, with agents processing the scene, gathering evidence and finally starting to gain access to the building.
At a news briefing on March 30, fire officials said they had a lot of work ahead of them. The warehouse itself was huge, and the fire had partially collapsed the building, making it unsafe for firefighters to enter until several days after the fire.
"The entire building is going to be investigated – everything from electrical causes, accidental causes, natural causes, suspicious causes – all those things will be investigated thoroughly," said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Capt. James Shadoan, at that briefing.
Shadoan, who is also an investigator with San Diego's MAST, said both local and federal investigators expected to remain at the scene of the fire for five to 10 days, looking at every corner of the business.
"We’re going to have rakes and shovels, sifting through every piece of debris, every piece of, let’s say, electrical components," the captain added. "And we have experts in all the different fields that we will be investigating."
The raging blaze erupted at the Off Road Warehouse on Balboa Avenue, near Convoy Street, at around 1:30 a.m. on March 28. It burned for more than four hours.
Firefighters worked tirelessly to knock down the flames and, by 6 a.m. that morning, local MAST officials were able to begin their investigation.
Neighboring businesses were able to avoid the flames, but not the aftermath.
Quality Automotive's front window and door were destroyed by firefighters checking for other dangers. Owner Tyson Do lost half his business this week trying to power his garage with just a generator.
"We weren't able to get any cars into our bays at all because they wouldn't let us pull the cars in through the driveway," Do said.
ORW Co-Owner Randy Weisser said his 16 employees will not miss a paycheck. In fact, the company is hoping to reopen in another warehouse in Kearny Mesa in the next four to five weeks.
Ernesto Diaz, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the ATF, said agents had started to survey the site on March 30, to ensure it was safe before more investigators could walk in. He stressed that the investigation would take time and resources.
"(It’s) a lot of different resources that we’re bringing in with MAST to work on this investigation," Diaz told reporters.
He said the ATF’s National Response Team is comprised of about 25 people with different specialties, brought in from different parts of the United States to aid investigations.
At that point, Diaz said they did not know if the fire was suspicious but said his team planned to investigate it "as any fire, from the ground up."
Per protocol, Diaz said they would investigate the business itself, too.
“We’ll do our normal course of duty,” he added.
Shadoan said the sheer size of the building brought unique challenges to investigators. Inside, in a garage area of the business, he said there were about a dozen cars scorched in the blaze, and some of those vehicles were on lifts. He said there was fear that those lifts may collapse.
Meanwhile, Shadoan said the structural integrity of the building itself was also compromised, so crews had to be very careful walking in and around it. There were gasoline tanks stored inside the building that also posed a potential hazard.
This was the second fire to spark at the business in the past four months. The first fire was reported at ORW on Nov. 16, 2018, prompting a large response from the SDFD. The cause of that first fire was accidental, the SDFD said.
Shadoan said that anytime fire officials see multiple fires at the same location, it strikes concern.
Nate Mullen, co-owner of the Off Road Warehouse, said last week he was grateful that federal investigators were stepping in to help with the investigation. He wanted answers as to what caused the fire that ripped through his business.
"Thank God we have ATF people on site, and they’re going to find out and get to the cause of the problem – whatever that cause is – so, I’m excited about that," Mullen told NBC 7.
Shadoan said it would have been difficult for the SDFD to investigate a fire scene of this size and scope alone, and they were grateful to be able to tap into their national resources.