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Investigators examine fire that severely burned Fresno captain

Fire investigators are still working to determine whether a fire that severely burned Fresno Fire Department Capt. Pete Dern was intentionally or accidentally set on Sunday.

On Thursday, there was no significant outstanding person to interview, Fresno Deputy Fire Marshal Don MacAlpine said.

“But I will say this,” he added, “someone is responsible for this fire.”

Investigators determined the blaze started in the attached garage of the central Fresno home, which was being used as some kind of boarding home for adults, MacAlpine said. Few other details could be released.

Five teams — local, state and private investigators — are looking into the fire that blazed below where Dern fell through the roof and into flames below. Among things being investigated are firefighter tactics and procedures.

In an effort to clear heavy smoke in the garage, Dern was leading several firefighters across its roof on Sunday in search of a spot to “vertically ventilate” — in simple terms, poking a hole in the top of a roof to let out heat and smoke. Without this ventilation, MacAlpine said, a billowing mushroom cloud of smoky heat can act like an intense microwave, spontaneously bursting everything into flames within minutes. Ventilating also increases visibility for firefighters battling the blaze below.

“It’s a very common and prudent and proven tactic to vertically ventilate on a structure fire such as this,” said MacAlpine, adding that Dern is well trained and experienced in ventilating structures. “This was in no means a rogue operation by some daredevil. This was very routine.”

But before crews could start sawing a hole, Dern fell through the roof, MacAlpine said.

Investigators are still working to determine why and how the roof collapsed. But MacAlpine said the fire was burning extremely hot right below where Dern fell in, “so regardless of the construction, the odds were stacked (against him).”

Earlier this week, Fresno Police Department spokesman Lt. Joe Gomez said officers are familiar with the boarding home/halfway house on Cortland Avenue just west of Manchester Center. Gomez said officers were called to the location more than a dozen times in March alone, including two calls the day of the fire. Police said the calls included disturbances and mental health issues.

Because of the demographics of those living at the home, MacAlpine said, it’s “not unusual” to have a high law enforcement presence there. He said the house — which floor plans show to be a five-bedroom, two-bathroom structure — was home to between five and seven adults, although guests stayed there temporarily on a regular basis.

Anyone with information about the fire or its possible cause is asked to call MacAlpine at (559) 621-4440 or email Donald.MacAlpine@fresno.gov.

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