Reports on source of NC fire vary |

Reports on source of NC fire vary

A second round of investigators have come up with a second opinion on the cause of last month’s devastating downtown Nevada City fire.

The blaze started in a “void space” between the old Elks Lodge building’s first and second floors, Don Perkins, an investigator for the insurer of Friar Tuck’s Restaurant & Bar, said Tuesday.

That counters a governmental team’s finding that the March 20 fire at North Pine and Commercial streets started in the restaurant’s first-floor laundry room – also the site of two small fires not long before the devastating blaze.

“A lot of fire science was misunderstood, in my opinion,” said Perkins, who has an office in Loomis.

Burn patterns don’t support the fire starting in the laundry room, said Perkins, who also rejected a governmental team theory that the fire might have started when newly dried rags used to wipe up peanut oil possibly spontaneously combusted in the laundry room.

But Phil Porto of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said burn patterns do support the fire starting in the laundry room.

The peanut-oil theory, he added, is worth exploring because two previous fires – the first in early February, the second March 18 – involved burning rags that were quickly extinguished. Both also occurred about the time the restaurant bought a new water-saving washing machine, and some employees said it hadn’t cleaned the rags as well, Porto said.

“If that happened twice, then there’s a better-than-average probability that it happened again, but we have no physical evidence to say that,” Porto said. “It’s certainly speculative on our part.”

Porto worked with investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, Grass Valley Fire Department and the Nevada City police and fire departments.

The team reached its findings just as five insurance investigators began checking the scene; one is expected to return today.

Both sides agreed the fire wasn’t arson and that the cause might never be known. Consolidated Battalion Chief Vern Canon said a restaurant computer for a surveillance camera might have provided clues.

But, he added, “It was too far gone to get any information on it.”

As for his area of origin, Perkins said the “void space,” roughly 28 by 12 feet, included two restaurant offices situated between the laundry room below and the Nevada County Probation Department above.

He said the other insurance investigators generally agreed the fire started there. One of them, Craig Diamond of Cedar Ridge, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Friar Tuck’s owner Greg Cook has been critical of the governmental team’s findings. Like Perkins, he noted the laundry included several items – including toilet paper, cardboard and carpeting – that were either unscathed or suffered little damage.

In response, Porto said the fire could have started somewhere above the laundry room floor, sending flames and heat upward, until the ceiling collapsed and covered unburned items.

Cook also dismissed the peanut oil theory.

“It’s a hard one to buy, because if that’s true, we’re suing the manufacturer of the washing machine,” he said.

Besides Friar Tuck’s, the fire destroyed the Probation Department; The Herb Shop, which also had a deli and record store; and the Off Broadstreet Theater.

Most of the burned contents have been hauled away, and a Robinson Enterprises crew is on the verge of knocking down a brick wall shared with Broad Street businesses. The theater will also come down.

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