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Aug-11-2007 00:13printcomments

Salem Fire Releases Cause of McMahan's Furniture Store Blaze (VIDEO)

The building was a landmark for Salem residents. Story includes the original video report as the building burned.
Photos by Kevin Montgomery from and Bill Holmstrom/Salem Fire

(SALEM, Ore.) - Fire investigators say a massive blaze at the McMahan's Furniture store in Salem, Oregon August 10th of last year was caused by an "electrical system failure of undetermined type."

This determination is officially listed as the most probable cause of the fire, though insurance companies and private fire investigators have now taken possession of the direct evidence to conduct costly, additional testing.

Though some preliminary and inconclusive tests have been done, Fire Department Bill Holmstrom says full testing has yet to be completed and may not be for some time.

Salem Fire Department crews were called out to the McMahan's Furniture store at 260 State Street last year on August 10th, after flames erupted from the historic capitol city multi-level building.

The first Salem Fire units on the scene from Station No. 1, located just a few blocks away, upgraded the "alarm sounding" assignment to a full first alarm response, which means three fire engines, one ladder truck, one Battalion Chief and one ambulance headed for the scene.

At that point they knew that an employee at the store was reporting that the basement of the store was on fire and that employees were evacuating.

Holmstrom says that on arrival, firefighters observed heavy smoke issuing from the concrete and masonry building. They immediately requested a second alarm which summoned more fire engines and equipment.

As first and second alarm apparatus were responding, a third alarm was requested at 7:59 AM, which meant two more fire engines and one more ladder truck. Holmstrom says another alarm soon sounded.

"Fire attack lines were extended into the structure to attempt to control the fire. A fourth alarm was requested at 8:54 AM bringing additional fire engines to the scene. The fourth alarm and special requests brought a total 11 fire engines, 4 ladder trucks, and 2 battalion chiefs."

The initial progress reports from fire attack crews inside the building indicated heavy smoke conditions and extremely poor visibility and a large body of fire on the first floor, Holmstrom said.

"Based on these reports and the exterior view of the size of the quickly spreading fire, firefighters were forced to discontinue the interior firefighting strategy and tactics and shift their focus to defensive objectives to prevent the fire from extending to the neighboring businesses."

Soon 65 firefighters were battling the blaze for more than two hours, using ladder truck water streams and large hand lines. Holmstrom says a "Fire under control" was transmitted at 10:13 AM.

"The defensive strategy was successful in preventing fire damage to any of the surrounding businesses. Three adjacent businesses experienced various levels of smoke damage though one of them reopened late in the day and a second was open the following morning. A third, Les Newman's clothing store was forced to close until structural repairs and cleaning could take place."

Two firefighters sustained minor injuries while fighting the fire and were transported to Salem Hospital for treatment. One firefighter/paramedic returned to work and the other was released from duty to recover. No civilian injuries were reported.

For the next several days, fire crews remained on the scene to search for and extinguish hot spots.

Fire investigators were able to safely enter the building on August 15th. Damage to the structure and contents was estimated at approximately $5.5 million.

Fire Cause Determination

Holmstrom says a fire investigation is a complex endeavor involving skill, technology, knowledge and science. Determining the cause of a fire is completed by developing a hypothesis and testing the hypothesis though deductive reasoning.

This is accomplished through a systematic approach where all factual data is discovered and analyzed. This approach will uncover new factual data, which may require previous conclusions to be reevaluated.

The McMahon's fire investigation was a complex endeavor that challenged fire investigators to stay focused, use the scientific method, and not give in to the perception that the fire was intentionally set, Holmstrom said.

"It was imperative for investigators to collect all information and data on the fire and form conclusions based on the fire indicators on scene that were observed and information provided by witnesses."

The fire investigation began the day of the fire on August 10th, 2006 by observing the fire growth and development and interviewing people associated with the fire.

The interior examination of the fire scene could not begin until the morning of August 15th, 2006. The delay was due to concerns over the stability of the structure, which had to be examined by a structural engineer to ensure it was safe for entry. Special precautions had to be taken once entry was made due to potential hazards inside the structure.

Holmstrom says that due to the complexity and significance of the fire, the Salem Fire Department conducted investigation simultaneously with private fire investigators retained by the affected insurance companies.

"A joint fire investigation is often used so that each person or agency that has a vested interest in finding the cause of the fire has all of opportunities to see the fire scene and examine it in its post fire condition, he said." He added that the fire investigation was conducted in accordance with nationally recognized practices by examining the fire scene from the area of least amount of fire damage to the area of greatest fire damage.

"This created challenges because the area of greatest damage was the area furthest away from the area of origin. The area of greatest fire damage was the third floor. This was due to the chimney effect of fire and heat rising up the central stairway to the top floor destroying everything on the floor and also due to the heavy fuel load inside."

The basement was full of highly combustible items such as couches; mattresses and other house hold furnishings. The floor of origin was later determined to be the basement of the structure even though it had sustained the least amount of damage.

Investigators say this was due to the proximity of the fire origin to the open stairwell to the main floor. The oxygen that fed the fire came from other stairwells that allowed the fire to progress to the upper floors and not spread through the rest of the basement.

According to Holmstrom, the investigation determined the fire to have originated on the south wall in the SE corner of the basement in an area where an electrical outlet was located.

"All fire burn indicators present indicated the fire originated at the outlet, which was heavily damaged. In order to confirm that this was the source of ignition all other possible ignition sources had to be eliminated, including such sources as natural causes and intentional acts."

Natural causes were ruled out since the weather was mild. Holmstrom says many steps were taken to verify or deny if the fire was intentionally set using an incendiary source.

"There were no fire indicators discovered during the investigation that indicated the fire was incendiary in nature. The Salem Police Department conducted polygraph tests of the occupants inside the structure that indicted the occupants inside the structure did not start the fire."

Records from the building's security system indicated that no people had been in the structure after it had closed for business the day before.

The occupant's statements are consistent with investigators observations, says Holmstrom.

"Timeline of events the morning of the fire and the occupant's actions correlate and substantiates their actions and accounts of the events the morning of the fire." He says information obtained from the occupants about the location of the fire when first discovered, the size of the fire, and chain of events that occurred prior to discovering the fire, were essential in determining area of origin where the fire started.

"The occupants used the electrical breakers to shut power off inside the business at night. Every morning someone would go to the basement and turn on all the breakers that were turned off the night before. The morning of the fire an employee proceeded to the basement to turn on the power. This was done at several locations in the basement. The occupant turned on the breakers that supplied power to the electrical system along the south wall in the basement, where the fire originated and then proceeded to turn on the other two sources. The employee then began making coffee in the break room area adjacent to the fire area. The employee then heard a noise and looked over and saw flames and smoke coming the south wall area where mattresses were stored."

Holmstrom says the information provided and the chain of events that occurred are consistent with the area of origin of the fire and time frames are consistent with a fire starting once the electrical power was turned on.

"After ruling out other potential sources of ignition, the only potential ignition source remaining was the electrical outlet on the south wall in the basement."

To confirm the electrical equipment as the cause of the fire, fire investigators and the insurance company have taken custody of the evidence for further testing at their expense.

Holmstrom says lab testing on fire-damaged items can cost into the thousands and can take a long time to complete.

"Since the fire was not determined to be incendiary, using city funds for this testing was not justified. When private tests like this are completed the fire agencies are provided the results."


You can also visit these stories about the McMahan's fire from last year. news archives are always free and available free to the public.

Fire Rages Through Salem Furniture Store (VIDEO)

Salem Fire Battling Furniture Store Blaze

Salem Fire Continues McMahan's Investigation (VIDEO)

Photos Show McMahan's Before and After Fire


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