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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published October 30 2010

Fire cause may remain undetermined

Ruling the cause of a fire as undetermined is sometimes the only responsible call, said North Dakota’s state fire marshal.

Ray Lambert, who has 40 years of fire service experience, said when fire investigators say the cause of a fire was arson or accidental, they need to be able to back it up in court.

“These are legal calls,” Lambert said. “They need to have considerable supporting physical evidence to support what they’re saying.”

As Fargo fire officials continue investigating the Oct. 11 Galleria On 42nd apartment complex fire, Capt. John Arens has said it’s possible the cause could be ruled undetermined.

“That doesn’t mean that they don’t know a lot about the fire, where it started, the progression of the fire, reasonably three, four or five potential causes,” Lambert said. “Even if you have two potential causes and you can’t rule one out or the other, then ‘undetermined’ is a responsible call.”

A “fair number” of fires are ruled as undetermined, Lambert said.

Statistics on how often the causes of Fargo fires go undetermined aren’t readily available, said Norm Scott, Fargo fire marshal.

Arens said he has ruled out that ignitable liquid was used in the Galleria fire. He’s also ruled out that the fire was started by a grill.

But he’s still conducting interviews and continuing to investigate other possibilities.

“And I might not have a cause,” Arens said.

The main reason firefighters want to determine a cause is so they can educate the public, Lambert said. Departments invest a tremendous amount of hours and expertise into finding the cause, he said.

“It all comes back to prevention,” Lambert said.

From an insurance standpoint, there typically aren’t ramifications for a homeowner or property owner if the cause of a fire is undetermined, said Stephen Bruning, a claim team manager for State Farm Insurance.

Most policies don’t require the cause to be determined in order to make a payment, said Bruning, of Sioux Falls, S.D., who handles property claims for North Dakota and South Dakota.

If the cause of the Galleria apartment fire goes undetermined, the main ramification would be for those tenants who didn’t have renters insurance, Bruning said. They won’t have any recourse to seek compensation from anyone.

“They’re not able to point to any negligent party saying it caused the fire,” Bruning said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590