HILLSBOROUGH: Origin of warehouse fire is pinpointed (updated)

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By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Federal investigators think they know where the historic Feb. 11-13 industrial park fire began.
They also have a good idea of what started the blaze — but they are not saying, just yet. They did say there was no indication the fire was caused by an intentional act.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Response Team has completed its fire scene investigation at the Veterans Industrial Park at 152 Route 206. Investigators say they have pinpointed the origin of the monster fire that consumed a half-million square feet of space in warehouse buildings.
Using on-the-scene examination and witness statements, it was determined that the fire originated in the high-rack storage area of building 14 in the west side of unit C. That’s the location of a paper records storage business, said Scott Curley, ATF’s assistant special agent in charge.
Federal investigators are in charge because of the size and scope of the property, as well as the fact that the site is owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The complex is subleased to a private real estate firm.
The fire resulted in more than $50 million in damages and destroyed two buildings that encompassed about 500,000 square feet. The five-alarm fire was extinguished with the assistance of 93 fire companies responding with more than 200 emergency vehicles from across central Jersey.
Mr. Curley and George P. Belsky, the ATF Newark Field Division special agent in charge, attended Tuesday night’s Township Committee meeting to give a report to the public.
Mr. Belsky said, “We have a theory on how (the fire started) but we can’t eliminate every other possibility . . . We do have a good idea of what happened.”
He all but eliminated any intentional act.
“I would be shocked to find something like that in the (final) report,” he said.
Maria Janucik of Camplain Road asked Mr. Belsky about what had been stored in the buildings, and if the fire could have released any environmental hazards. She pressed Mr. Belsky on the fact that plastic pellets, used as a raw material in molds for specific uses, had burned.
Mr. Belsky said burning plastic would not have generated any greater environmental air hazard.”
He deflected her questions about who was responsible for safety at the site, stressing the ATF was there to investigate the fire. Mayor Frank DelCore said the township also had little jurisdiction over the site.
A press release earlier in the day said, “The ignition source for the fire could not be determined and therefore the fire was classified as undetermined.”
Mr. Curley said there are four possible judgments for the cause for any fire: undetermined, accidental, intentionally set or natural causes.
“Even if we classify it as undetermined, it does not mean we don’t know. It means we can’t say for sure,” said Mr. Curley.
Mr. Curley said all the “data points” will be brought to a lead certified fire examiner, who will have 30 days to complete a report. “Data points” are information from alarms, the burn pattern, sprinkler timing, any video and witness statements, he said. No videos, from security cameras, for instance, survived, even on wifi, he said.
The 17-member NRT members joined with four ATF investigators from the Newark field office, one from New York and four from Philadelphia, he said.
They teamed with investigators from the Hillsborough Township Fire Marshal’s Office, the Hillsborough Township Police Department, the New Jersey State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Inspector General investigated the fire, following up on more than 70 investigative leads and conducting more than 50 interviews, according to the ATF.
“Investigating a fire of this size is truly a team effort,” said Mr. Belsky in the release. “We appreciate the dedication of our federal, state and local partners working with us to thoroughly investigate this fire to determine its origin and cause.”
Before the ATF agents spoke, Mayor DelCore recounted the fire, which was the largest in recent memory, he said, and was also notable for the extreme cold and windy conditions that generated a wind-chill factor well below zero degrees.
He praised local fire fighters as “certainly willing to lay their lives on the line” and he said he was humbled and inspired by the public’s immediate response to provide food, water, blankets, shelter and anything else that was needed that weekend,
The mayor said the township would work with Congressman Leonard Lance’s office to seek reimbursement for costs involved in fighting the fire.
Each team can respond within 24 hours to assist ATF, state and local law enforcement/fire service personnel in on-site investigations. Each team comprises veteran special agents specially trained in post-blast and fire origin-and-cause expertise, forensic chemists, explosives enforcement officers, fire protection engineers, accelerant detection canines, explosives detection canines, intelligence support, computer forensic support, and audit support.
The teams work constructing the scene, identifying the seat of the blast or origin of the fire, conducting interviews and sifting through debris to obtain evidence related to the explosion and/or fire.
ATF is the federal agency with jurisdiction for investigating fires and crimes of arson. More information on ATF can be found at http://www.atf.gov/. 

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