Investigations, inspections keep New London fire marshals busy
New London ― An excavator arrived at Mott Avenue in the Neptune Park neighborhood this week, its claw pawing at a blackened pile of debris that just a few days ago was a two-story home.
The excavator was there to aid in the investigation by the New London Fire Marshal’s Office into the cause and origin of the fire at 11 Mott Ave., a fire that burned so hot it caught two adjoining homes on fire and scorched two others.
New London Fire Marshal Vernon Skau expected that several days would be spent sifting through the pieces of charred wood and twisted metal in search of evidence. His office would also be performing hours of interviews with neighbors and homeowners as part of that investigation.
The number of complex, time-consuming fire investigations has been on the rise in New London over the past three years even as the number of reported fires in the city has dropped, data from the fire marshal’s office shows.
Data shows the number of intentionally set fires spiked in 2020. Where there were no intentionally set fires reported in 2018 or 2019, records show there were eight in 2020, nine in 2021 and six so far in 2022.
The total number of fires was: 102 in 2019, 87 in 2020, 86 in 2021 and 67 as of Nov. 1, 2022.
Investigations into intentionally set fires — ruled “incendiary” by the fire marshal’s office — tend to be more complex than the average kitchen stove fire because of the criminal aspect to the cases.
The fire marshal’s office and police department started partnering on investigations in early 2020 after a series of suspicious car fires.
“We saw early on (in 2020) an uptick. We wanted to make a more formalized team with consistent players,” Skau said.
Since that time, New London Police Detective Melissa Schafranski-Broadbent and Officer Richard Cable have been showing up with Skau and Fire Inspector David Heiney at fire scenes to aid in the fire investigation and follow-up on any criminal aspects to the cause of the fire.
“We’re processing the scenes together,” Skau said.
Last year, the team was recognized with an Outstanding Accomplishment Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators in part because of the high clearance rate, or cases that led to arrests.
The fire marshal’s 2021 Annual Report shows seven of the nine intentionally-set fires led to arrests —including arson charges for individuals in connection with three different fires at occupied apartment buildings and two multi-family family homes.
Records show there have been five arrests associated with the six intentionally set fires so far in 2022.
Those included the arrest of a Groton man in connection with a May 19 incident on Granite Street in which a “Molotov cocktail” was tossed at a residence. The same man is charged in connection with a car fire on May 31 outside a 48 Granite Street home.
A two-alarm fire at a multi-family home at 69 Rosemary St. on July 2 that displaced at least five people and injured two firefighters remains under investigation. The fire marshal’s office determined that fire was intentionally set.
Two of the fires in 2022 included three fatalities, though the deaths are not attributed to fire. One was a suspected murder-suicide and in the other a man is accused of killing his wife and then lighting a fire with a 13-month-old still inside his Sherman Street home.
Skau, on Friday, was quick to point it was still too early in his investigation to speculate about the cause or origin of the fire at 11 Mott Ave.
here were no indications in the preliminary investigation to point to anything suspicious but an incendiary cause has yet to be ruled out, he said.
Skau said that at times the work performed by his office, especially when the damage is significant, is comparable to what an archaeologist does. The Mott Avenue fire investigation is a good example of that.
“You’re moving debris. You sort it and look at it and move some more debris. You have to be careful not to damage any evidence,” Skau said.
Fire investigations are only a part of the work being performed by the fire marshal’s office, whose duties include code inspections and review of plans for new construction. New construction is on the rise, and the amount of work has increased over the past several years.
Data from the fire marshal’s office showed that activities associated with new construction jumped by 17% from 2020 to 2021 even as fire investigation activities, or the amount of time spent on investigations, rose by 34%.
New construction adds to workload
“It’s definitely kept them busy. I’m not sure that residents in New London realize how much activity is going on in New London,” New London Fire Chief Thomas Curcio said. He referenced the number of new businesses and construction projects that required inspections, including two apartment complexes on Howard Street totaling more than 300 units.
Because of a lack of manpower, fire marshal offices in New London, and across the region have found it difficult to keep up with requirements of state statutes that mandate regular inspections of certain commercial and residential building.
In 2021, the New London Fire Marshal’s Office inspected approximately 23% of what statute actually requires, according to the 2021 annual report of the fire marshal’s office.
The New London Fire Marshal’s Office, which at one time had four fire inspectors, was down to two until the recent promotion of firefighter Nick Brown to the the position of fire inspector. Brown is expected to go to training and earn state certification early in in 2023 and will fill a fully-funded position.
Skau said he is looking forward to additional help,which he expects will have a major positive impact for his office.
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