Spate of recent fires in downstate Delaware keep investigators busy

By Craig Anderson
Posted 11/17/21

A string of fires this month continued in Georgetown Monday night, then Tuesday morning in Dover.

Since Nov. 1, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has investigated at least seven significant …

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Spate of recent fires in downstate Delaware keep investigators busy

Firefighters from Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Milton, Indian River battled a structure fire at 29 Dove Knoll Drive in the Dove Knoll Development off of Coastal Highway behind Midway Shopping Center south of Lewes on Saturday at approximately 8 a.m. Units arrived to find heavy fire in the garage with extension into the home. No one was injured as crews fought the blaze for 2 1/2 hours to bring it under control.
Firefighters from Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Milton, Indian River battled a structure fire at 29 Dove Knoll Drive in the Dove Knoll Development off of Coastal Highway behind Midway Shopping Center south of Lewes on Saturday at approximately 8 a.m. Units arrived to find heavy fire in the garage with extension into the home. No one was injured as crews fought the blaze for 2 1/2 hours to bring it under control.
Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder
Posted

A string of fires this month continued in Georgetown Monday night, then Tuesday morning in Dover.

Since Nov. 1, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has investigated at least seven significant blazes south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal — three in Sussex County, two in Kent and two in southern New Castle.

Besides the blaze in Georgetown, which occurred in the woods and left a 37-year-old man critically injured, the other fires, all residential, happened in Camden-Wyoming, Dover, Bethany Beach, and Rehoboth Beach, along with two Middletown blazes. Another residential fire in Delmar on Oct. 29 left one person dead.

“Hopefully that’s it. We’d be happy to have no fire investigations the rest of the year,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio.

There’s just no telling when and where the next fire may ignite, though.

“You just can’t predict when a fire will occur,” Mr. Chionchio said. “There might be five at the beginning of the month, there could be five at the end of the month, you just don’t know.”

The Office of the State Fire Marshal has investigated 504 fires this year as of Sunday, and examined 529 in 2020. There were 488 investigations in 2019.

As of Monday, Mr. Chionchio said there have been 12 fire investigations in November, although not all were publicized with news releases. He also added that while some incidents may involve more serious injuries and property loss, all cases big and small are treated as a high priority to investigators.

So while the pace of this year’s fires investigated is ahead of 2020, “We will have to wait until the end of this year to compare,” Mr. Chionchio said.

Also there have been 53 injury investigations this year, while 2020 saw 75.

The pace could quicken even more as temperatures drop and space heaters and heat lamps are utilized more frequently and holiday decorations are brought out of storage.

“Fires can occur any time during any part of the year. However when the weather turns colder and people tend to stay indoors more, structure fires seem to increase during those winter months,” Mr. Chionchio said.

“Heating, cooking and more gatherings indoor can increase the chances.”

The State Fire Marshal covers all of Delaware except for the cities of Dover and Wilmington. There are 20 law enforcement investigators stationed in three divisional offices (New Castle, Dover and Georgetown).

Dover, which employs four investigators, had experienced 34 incidents this year as of Sunday, matching 2020’s 12-month total. There were 45 incidents in 2019, 41 in 2018 and 54 in 2017, according to Dover Fire Marshal Jason Osika.

Four fires in Dover have caused a combined $440,000 in damage. No injuries occurred.

Safety tips

While fires are unpredictable, there are definitely ways to lessen the chance of one igniting. Mr. Chionchio provided safety tips including:

• Being vigilant while cooking, using only electric and electronics having approval from a third-party independent testing organization such as Underwriters Laboratories.

• Always discard fireplace/wood stove ashes and debris away from any structure in a metal container, do not use fireworks.

• Do not use portable space heaters within 3 feet of anything that can burn, limit or eliminate the use of candles. Do not smoke cigarettes, cigars, pipes inside the house. Do not use a turkey fryer inside the home or on the home’s deck or patio (use in yard on a stable surface away from anything that can burn). Never use a gas generator inside the house or garage.

• Make sure smoke alarms are working.

• Make sure the Carbon Monoxide detectors are functioning properly

• Consider installing residential sprinklers inside your home or future home.

• Have an escape plan and exercise that escape plan regularly with family and guests. Get out and stay out.

When a fire occurs, there’s no time to waste, said Mr. Chionchio, advising that “A delay in detecting and reporting the fire can make a residential blaze likely to become more serious.

“The delays allow the fire to develop in intensity before the fire department arrives on the scene.”

About 75% blazes involve a residence, Mr. Chionchio said.

There have been pros and cons to new building structures, Mr. Osika said, noting that “Newer homes are usually built using lightweight construction. Between the building materials and the materials used in the products within a residence, fires are burning faster than years ago.

“There have been advances such as interconnected smoke detectors and residential sprinklers.”

Sparking investigations

When it comes to determining the cause and origin of a fire, investigations come in a variety of shapes and sizes, Mr. Chionchio said.

“An investigation that seems simple to solve can become complex once the facts are discovered. The key factor in any investigation is the cooperation of victims and witnesses, he said.

“A trained investigator always keeps an open mind when conducting an investigation, acknowledging that a fire can be accidental or criminal in nature. This comes with experience and training.”

According to Mr. Osika, the length of an investigation all depends with the size and complexity of the incident.

“Victim and witness statements are very important as well as any video or photographs that we can obtain. We have to find the exact origin of the fire and then we work on the cause of the fire. This can take anywhere from an hour to a few hours to a few days,” he said.

“Some cases remain open, depending on the circumstances.”

When it comes to criminally set versus accidental fires, Mr. Osika said “We have had people cause an incendiary fire and try to make it look accidental.

“It is our job to make sure we put everything together to prove that it is incendiary and not accidental. “

All investigators are required to successfully pass a certified police academy, enabling their police authority, Mr. Chionchio said. Mandatory attendance is also required at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland to obtain the fire and explosion investigation skills.

Other educational resources are utilized to train the investigators, such as the ATF National Center for Explosives Training and Research, New Mexico Tech Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.

A variety of courses are also available online and throughout the country.

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