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Date of Issue: May 07, 2008

Fire investigators close Holmes Beach case

7-5-08/hb-fire-lathrop.jpg
Not child's play
Novelty lighters encourage children to play with fire, according to West Manatee Fire Rescue Deputy Fire Marshal Kurt Lathrop. The toys are the focus of National Arson Awareness Week, which takes place through May 10. Islander Photo: Courtesy Oregon State Fire Marshal Office
7-5-08/hb-fire.jpg
Photo by Arthur Valadie

A hired investigator has concluded his review of the fire that destroyed a home on 58th Street in Holmes Beach April 17.

“It was an accident,” said Dave Kessinger of HSA Engineers and Science. His firm was hired by the insurance company to review the fire at the home of Kent and Pa Davis.

“We deal with claims throughout the state,” he said. “Our job was to go in and do an origin-of-cause investigation.”

The fire was reported at 2:19 a.m. April 17. Pa and Kent Davis escaped without injury to stand in their cul-de-sac as the blaze destroyed their bayfront home and their possessions, including a rare and antique book collection.

Kessinger’s investigation concluded with the same results as the investigation conducted by Kurt Lathrop, the deputy fire marshal with the West Manatee Fire Rescue District.

Lathrop determined in the hours after the fire that a rag soaked with linseed oil and used to treat furniture the night before was placed in a trash can, where it generated enough heat to start a fire. He estimated the damage at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It did involve the linseed oil,” Kessinger said. “What happened is spontaneous combustion. It generated its own heat.”

With combustible materials such as linseed oil, reactions can generate heat more rapidly than it can be dissipated, with a resulting temperature increase in the material. In order for spontaneous ignition to occur, there must be a source of oxygen — enough for the heat-generating reaction to take place but not enough draft so that the heat is quickly carried away.

Kessinger said during the course of his investigation he was able to identify in the debris the plastic trash can that had contained the rag.

“The bottoms don’t burn up,” he said. “Amazing. I found it adjacent to a piece of rug.”

Kessinger is a retired firefighter from St. Petersburg’s department and spent about five to six hours at the Davis home.

“When we go to the scene, we do the whole entire structure that’s involved,” Kessinger said. “We consider everything. And then we determine the cause.”

Kessinger said he conducts an objective investigation: “When I go in to do a fire, I don’t want to see the fire department report. I don’t even want to talk to the people in the house. I want to investigate the fire.”

He concluded that the fire “took a long time to ignite,” but once it “got to ignition temperature, the fire took off. The heat radiated. This was a very fast fire.”

Kessinger praised the Davises for having installed smoke detectors in the home and stressed that if residents do two things to protect themselves from fire, they should install detectors and keep the batteries charged.

“Smoke detectors won’t do nothing but save lives,” Kessinger said. “Once this fire took off, it went. You can imagine, these people get up in their bedclothes in just enough time to get out with their lives.”

“I’ve had to investigate 75 [fire deaths],” Kessinger continued. “I had to go in and determine why these people died and I cannot put enough emphasis on putting in operating smoke detectors.”

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