December 26, the night a fire swept through and destroyed Tom and Vivian Ahlers' home on West Mercer Way, fire investigator Rob Villalobos could barely sleep.
After the fire had been extinguished, Villalobos
, also a firefighter for the Mercer Island Fire Department
, walked through the shell that used to be a house, searching for the clues that would tell him how the devastating blaze began. He
and other firefighters had come up with a theory: They thought an electric blanket laid on a mattress in a back bedroom was the key, that it had sparked the fire.But in his
own bed later that night, Villalobos
felt in his
gut that they were off, that there was more hunting to do.
Experience comes in handy in figuring out the mystery of where a fire started.To an untrained eye, the blackened remnants of a fire look the same every way you turn.But to Villalobos
, with 21 years under his
belt, the charred ceiling and burnt out walls left by a fire tell a story.
As an investigator, he
watches the fire and he
talks to witnesses.He
takes photos of the interior and exterior.He
steps carefully through the structure, noticing the char on the walls and ceiling.The deeper the char, the longer the burn, knowledge which leads him to the start of the fire.
A fire near a wall will typically leave a sloped burn pattern in the wall studs.In the room where a fire starts, the wall studs nearest the start of the fire will be all but disintegrated, which shows Villalobos
where to look for the source.The more damage, the closer he
is to the source of the fire.
went back to the Ahlers' house and investigated further, Villalobos saw that the sloped pattern led him lower than the mattress, to an electrical outlet on another side of that back bedroom.The outline of a cardboard box that was shoved up against the outlet could still be made out on the burnt carpet.When he
saw it, he
knew that's where it all started.He
was right to go back and look again -- the clues held the story and led him to the source of the fire.
The Ahlers' one-floor house was built in 1965.It had large windows leading to a deck overlooking a woodsy yard and a cozy courtyard near the front entrance.
Now, the smell of charred everything permeates the house's skeleton; crunchy broken glass and rain-wetted soot collect in the soles of shoes slogging through the place.All that's left of the Ahlers' couch is a pile of springs.Picture frames with the glass blown out are scattered across the floor in the living room.
estimated that the temperature in the bedroom got up to 1,800 degrees.
Seeing the destruction and maybe imagining it was his
said, ``This is the worst thing that could happen to me personally.''Villalobos
wears two hats with the department: For his
job as a firefighter, he
puts on his
job as fire investigator, he
Sherlock Holmes hat, figuratively speaking.
``I like the sleuth stuff,'' he
As a firefighter, his
interest in the ``sleuth stuff'' was piqued in the early 1990s after a Mercer Island house fire that he
found suspicious.The patterns left behind by the fire were like nothing he
'd seen before, he said. He
remembers getting to the house as a backup firefighter right after the fire was extinguished.It was just weird, he
said.Things didn't match up.The homeowners said they'd built a fire in the fireplace, but the fire screen was open, he
said.There were sporadic holes running down the length of the hallway floor instead of covering the entire floor.The path of the fire showed that it traveled down to the basement.
``Fire does not burn downhill,'' Villalobos
The circumstances were peculiar, he
thought, and he
was suspicious.But he was not an investigator at the time, and the investigation really didn't go anywhere, he said.
``I didn't want to see that happen again,'' he
After that, Villalobos
started to take classes to get trained in investigating, and he
was eventually assigned to be one of the Mercer Island Fire Department
's investigators.As such, he
looks into not only structure fires on the Island, but arsons and pranks as well. He's
learned about the financial repercussions of a fire, such as insurance compensation, which has helped him ask the right questions after a fire.He's
learned about home construction from different eras, so he
knows how long and wide certain support beams should be.If they're too short or too thin, intense heat from the fire may have eaten away at them, indicating the fire's starting point.Villalobos
has always wanted to know the ``why'' of a story.From dismantling toys as a child to examine their insides and figure out how they worked, to searching out the few inches of space in a house where the spark of devastation started, it's all about the ``why.''
In addition to their work as firefighters and investigators, Villalobos
and John Bridenbaugh, the department's other investigator, both belong to the Fire Arson Investigation Team (FAIT), a group of about 90 Puget Sound firefighters formed to help recognize and reduce incidents of arson in the area.
...Villalobos is serving as president of FAIT, which also trains other firefighters and criminal prosecutors, the latter in order to teach them what they need to know to prosecute an arsonist.
``You have to go after things, even if the intent is harmless,'' and think about what could have happened, said Villalobos