Federal and local authorities have a lot of work ahead of them in their joint investigation into a fire that gutted a 13,000-square-foot auto shop in San Diego, leaving behind a partially collapsed building and $3.5 million in damages.
"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 news briefing Saturday.
Shadoan, who is also an investigator with the local Metro Arson Strike Team (MAST), said both local and federal investigators expect to remain at the scene of the fire for the next 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 huge blaze erupted at the Off Road Warehouse on Balboa Avenue, near Convoy Street, at around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. 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.
On Friday, the SDFD said more than two dozen agents with the National Response Team (NRT) and Los Angeles branches of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would join the investigation into the fire that had destroyed the Off Road Warehouse on Balboa Avenue in Kearny Mesa a day earlier.
Some of the federal investigators began arriving Friday afternoon. By Saturday morning, the joint investigation was fully underway, with agents processing the scene, gathering evidence and finally starting to gain access to the building, which Shadoan said was structurally-compromised by the blaze that had raged inside of it for hours.
The flames had collapsed part of the roof, so firefighters were not able to immediately and safely enter the building. On Saturday morning, authorities said they had been able to start making their way inside for the first time.
Ernesto Diaz, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the ATF, said agents had started to survey the site, to ensure it was safe before more investigators could walk in. He stressed that the investigation is still in its infancy, and will 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.
Diaz said investigators did not yet know what caused the fire or whether it is suspicious in nature.
“We’re going to treat this as any normal fire scene we respond to,” Diaz said. “As of now, we are investigating this 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 brings unique challenges to investigators. Inside, in a garage area of the business, he said there are about a dozen cars that were scorched in the blaze, and some of those vehicles are on lifts.
He said there is a danger that those lifts may collapse.
Meanwhile, Shadoan said the structural integrity of the building itself is also compromised, so crews have to be very careful walking in and around it. There are gasoline tanks stored inside the building that could also pose a hazard.
The captain said Saturday’s work would consist of crews sorting out the logistics. They would be interviewing firefighters who were first to respond to the blaze to try to get an indication of where the fire may have started, too.
This is 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.
At this point, officials do not know if the fires are related. In both cases, no one was hurt.
Shadoan said that anytime fire officials see multiple fires at the same location, it strikes concern.
However, at this point, the captain said the fire has not officially been deemed suspicious and investigators do not have any persons of interest on their radar.
Nate Mullen, co-owner of the Off Road Warehouse, said he’s grateful federal investigators are helping. He wants 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.
The federal team was brought in at the request of the SDFD and will work alongside local fire investigators to determine the cause of the fire. NRT agents will re-construct the scene to identify the fire's origin.
Shadoan said it would be difficult for the SDFD to investigate a fire scene of this size and scope alone, and they’re grateful to be able to tap into their national resources.
The captain said the investigative team includes electrical and building engineers, K-9s, forensic auditors and many more valuable, knowledgeable colleagues who will help in the search for answers.