Sifting Through Ashes: Answering Who Started The Fire

Posted at 3:54 PM, Apr 24, 2013

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The destructive nature of fire can destroy businesses, homes, even lives in a matter of seconds.

When the fire is out, the investigation into how or who started the fire is often a much longer process.

In the past six months FOX 17 has reported on at least eight active arson investigations in our West Michigan.

Some of those fires remain unsolved or undetermined but we wanted to know, why? And what goes into an investigation when everything was seemingly destroyed in the fire?

Fires can complicated a crime scene, turning a building into a pile of ash, for fire investigators the task of determining the cause is time consuming.

Sometimes an investigator can determine without a doubt that a crime was committed, other times they can not reach that conclusion.

In 2012 the seven Michigan State Police fire investigators were called to a total of 329 fires, of those 127 were ruled arson and 171 were unsolved.

On Sunday, April 21st Ewerson Solis left his family-run business, at the corner of Alpine Avenue and 9th Street in Grand Rapids, to get something to eat.

When he returned the store was in flames.

The shocking sight of seeing his business on fire knocked Solis unconscious, “I couldn’t see anything.  I just fell into my dad’s hands.  He grabbed me and put me on the floor.”

Now the Solis family business is the subject of a Grand Rapids Fire Department investigation; How did this fire start?

It’s also a question Michigan State Sgt. Trever Slater was called to answer 75 times last year.

Outside the city of Grand Rapids, Sgt. Slater handles suspicious fires for state police investigations across the rest of West Michigan.

Sgt. Slater said, “A lot of it is getting down and getting dirty.”

Weeks after the last ember dies out, the unmistakable scent of utter destruction lingers.

We met Sgt. Slater in Algoma Township, where the contents of a two story house collapsed down to its foundation.

A case he worked earlier in the year, “When there is so much damage like this, it’s hard for us to rule out a lot of other things.”

In November of 2012, a suspected arson burned a Battle Creek home.

Eight-year-old Karrina Johnson was killed and the case remains unsolved.

Battle Creek police are still holding out hope that someone has information that can lead to an arrest.

Of the 75 fires Sgt. Slater handled last year, 28 were ruled arson, 4 were ruled accidental and 45 couldn’t be determined.

Sgt. Slater said, “Unless somebody comes up to me at the scene and I get a full confession or I can put it together here a lot of it comes in follow up after I’m done with the scene.  So, it can take awhile after the fire is put out.”

That’s why Sgt. Slater relies on witnesses to help them put the pieces together.

“I like to start out with talking to whoever may have called in the fire,” said Sgt. Slater.  “The first arriving firefighter or people that were home when the fire occurred.  And that is where I get a majority of my information especially when the fire causes this much damage.  Eye-witness accounts are much more beneficial than what I can get out of looking at the fire because of the severity of the damage.”

Some of the best clues, according to Sgt. Slater, come from witnesses with a camera phone, “And not necessarily the ones that you may think they have much but just someone driving by early on in the fire.  It can make a huge difference because they can lead us in the right direction.”

Sgt. Slater said cell phone video was crucial in the Gobles fire that destroyed a city block in 2012.

“What led us to the conclusion on that one, was someone outside took early on video with their phone and that was able to get us back to the origin of the fire,” said Sgt. Slater.

Without any witnesses, determining a cause of a fire can be time consuming.

The MSP lab fights fire with fire.

“They pull out a very small amount of the air particles and they heat up and test for the presence of accelerant,” said Sgt. Slater.

Even if the puzzle appears to be put together it may not be enough in the eyes of the law.

In the case of the Algoma Township house fire, Sgt. Slater said it was likely started by a candle left unintended in the home.  The fire destroyed all evidence of any candle so the cause is left undetermined.

The whole process not only takes a toll on fire investigators but also the victims dealing with the aftermath.

For this family owned business in Grand Rapids, one question in their mind will be, is it worth it to start over.