No one may ever know why 310 and 312 Watson St. went up in flames Wednesday.
After spending hours picking through the ruins of the burned-out downtown buildings, investigators believe the fire was not a criminal act, but they can’t be sure what exactly sparked the fire.
The news was broken via a press release Friday morning.
“Extensive interviews of witnesses, property owners, business owners and residents were conducted by the investigators and extensive examination of the fire scene took place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week,” it stated. “The cause of the fire in the 300 block of Watson Street is currently undetermined. Investigators have found no evidence of an intentional criminal act. Multiple accidental potential causes of the fire cannot be eliminated at this time.”
The investigation was done by representatives from the state Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI)-Arson Bureau with help from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Ripon Police Investigator Lindsey Michels and members of the Ripon Area Fire District, including Fire Chief Tim Saul.
When contacted for further comment, Police Chief Dave Lukoski stated he could not say any more.
“I really don’t,” he said. “That was the press release all the investigators agreed to. The reason [we won’t say more] is the probable civil litigation. All we are sure of at this point in time is there is no evidence of any criminal act.
“We are all done with the site.”
Details of what investigators found, though, likely won’t become available until sometime in January.
When asked to confirm the location of where the fire started, initially described as being in the basement of one of the buildings, Lukoski said, “We’re not going to get into that at all.”
Those details will be included in the final report, to which the state and the city are both contributing.
“It’s two to three weeks from being handed over to us,” Lukoski said. “The state has the bulk of the report, and at some point it will come to me. Until I get that report [no further details will be available].”
With the official investigation now complete, the scene is being turned over to the insurance companies, which may wish to do its own investigation of the fire scene.
This also enabled the fire department to transition from investigation mode to recovery, as it began helping residents Friday recover any personal items not destroyed by the fire.
“We will be around to help residents go in and get things that may not be safe for them to reach, but we can reach it,” Fire Chief Tim Saul said Friday. “We’ll be downtown today. If they need anything after that, they can contact the fire department.”
The investigation finished around 4 p.m., far more quickly than Lukoski initially believed it would end.
As of Thursday morning, he assumed it would be many, many days before it would wrap up.
“I have no idea [how quickly we will learn more],” Lukoski said at that time. “It all depends on what they find. These things are like picture puzzles — 5,000-piece picture puzzles. It could take weeks or even months to determine what is going on here because crime scenes tend to be destroyed. We need to reconstruct and move on from there. These things are very fluid and change by the minute.”
In fact, it did change quite quickly.
“The help that was provided by the excavator [from Egbert Excavating of Green Lake] was invaluable,” Lukoski said. “Obviously, that helped us a lot. That probably speeded up the process — the fact we were able to direct him to get to the area we needed to get to.”
Excavation began Thursday around noon. Saul, Michels, the ATF investigator, the DCI investigator and at least one contractor could be seen working through the burned building, while Ripon Police officers stood guard at the scene.
“It’s exceedingly difficult, and that’s one reason why we asked for outside assistance,” Lukoski said. “We don’t do these types of investigations very often. I don’t think we’ve done one like that since the ’80s or ’90s, and those were house fires ...
“We called in the DCI. They called in what they felt they needed.”
That included the ATF, which Lukoski stated was not surprising.
“They work very closely on these cases,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unusual that they were called in on something like that.”
With the scene now being turned over to the insurance companies, those companies now are in the driver’s seat in terms of determining when the buildings are torn down.
“It sounds like it will be in the hands of the insurance company now, so it might be a few weeks,” City Administrator Lori Rich said. “Downtown will continue to be blocked off until those buildings come down.”
It’s also unclear how long the burned-out buildings will remain as-is, with facades Lukoski describes as “a public safety issue.”
The insurance companies will make that determination.
"Several Fire investigators from the Division of Criminal Investigation were joined by a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives (ATF), Investigator Lindsey Michels from the Ripon Police Department and members of the Ripon Area Fire District Fire Department, including Fire Chief Tim Saul.
"Extensive interviews of witnesses, property owners, business owners and residents were conducted by the investigators and extensive examination of the fire scene took place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
"The cause of the fire in the 300 block of Watson Street is currently undetermined. Investigators have found no evidence of an intentional criminal act. Multiple accidental potential causes of the fire cannot be eliminated at this time."
As additional details become available, they will be shared via RiponPress.com, and in the Dec. 19, 2013 edition of the Ripon Commonwealth Press.