Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 5:17 am | Mostly Cloudy 51º


Local News

Cause of Santa Maria Apartment Fire Remains ‘Undetermined’

Investigators unable to find the source of blaze that displaced 46 residents of West Morrison Street complex

A firefighters battles a blaze on Jan. 25 at the La Vista Apartments in Santa Maria. Investigators say they have been unable to determine the cause of the fire. Click to view larger
A firefighters battles a blaze on Jan. 25 at the La Vista Apartments in Santa Maria. Investigators say they have been unable to determine the cause of the fire. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The cause of a fire that damaged several units at a Santa Maria apartment complex and displaced 46 residents earlier this year remains undetermined, according to investigators.

On Jan. 25, personnel from the Santa Maria Fire Department, Police Department, American Medical Response and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were dispatched to the blaze at the La Vista Apartments on the 900 block of West Morrison Street.

Flames damaged one unit, with moderate damage due to smoke and water affecting other apartment units, along with extensive roof damage.

“Because of multiple circumstances, including delay or failure of smoke alarms; a relatively short duration between the time the sole occupant left the apartment and a well-established fire was discovered; and the lack of a verifiable competent ignition source , the fire cause is undetermined,” the report said.

Darrell Delgado from the city Fire Department investigated the incident with assistance from several colleagues.

The fire sent a large cloud of black smoke above the city, with multiple engines responding to extinguish the blaze.

Officials estimate the loss, including the building and contents, at $500,000 for the apartments that are part of the La Vista Southeast Community in the large complex.

The fire started in the southwest corner of the first-floor living area, but the point of origin could not be determined, Delgado said. 

Potential ignition sources near where the fire started included a lamp fixture, a music appliance, electrical cords and an electrical outlet, which had no damaged consistent with heat exposure but not consistent with internal failure.

“The identifiable remains of the lamp and appliance were not sufficient to allow reliable conclusions regarding their potential involvement in fire ignition,” the report said. 

The extent of damage to the lamp fixture and portable music player “prevented elimination or confirmation that either device sustained a failure resulting in the subject fire,” Delgado concluded. 

The fire started less than 10 minutes after the resident left to walk her dog, and was spotted by residents of a neighboring apartment.

Delgado discounted several alternative culprits such an an entertainment center that did not reveal any catastrophic failure of the relocatable power taps.

Discovery of an “Adams Flea & Tick” aerosol defogger also was considered as a possible source. The dispensing top was missing, similar to other aerosol cans in the fire area.

“The exterior surface of the ‘Adams’ can did not sustain significant heat damage, and I could not confirm its pre-fire location,” Delgado said, noting that the text on the label was readable and indicated the product’s flammable nature.

Defoggers release flammable gases that can be ignited by common electrical sources such as refrigerator motors or light switches. The resident purchased a multipack and used one can in the days before the fire, according to a report. 

However, the potential source of the fire "cannot be effectively analyzed in this instance because there is not objective evidence to demonstrate a fogger was deployed when (the resident) left the subject apartment,” the report said.

With Delgado's permission, an investigator for the apartment complex took possession of the burned remains to conduct a forensic analysis, the reported noted.

“This analysis would possibly confirm the subject appliance conductors were energized when impacted by heat exposure during the subject fire,” Delgado wrote. "No information regarding analysis of the appliance or conductor remains have been provided to date.” 

Investigators found the evidence of a smoke detector in the loft, but nothing indicating a first-floor detector.

“No remains of the first-floor smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, or the associated mounting hardware were located despite witness information indicating these detectors were installed on a beam supporting the loft,” the report said.

Witnesses reported hearing a smoke detector, but it's not known which apartment unit the alarm came from, the report added. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >