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.