Blackstock Fire Wasn't Arson -- New Probe Makes Different Finding

The Blackstock Lumber Co. fire that killed firefighter Lt. Matthew Johnson and injured another in September 1989, was not arson after all, the Seattle Fire Department says.

Investigators now say the cause is undetermined.

The department's fire-investigation unit re-investigated the fire, and has withdrawn its finding that the blaze was started by someone using chemicals, Georgia Taylor, Seattle Fire Department information officer, said today. The investigation unit has not, however, reclassified the fire as accidental, Taylor said.

"The conclusion that it was arson and started with the use of those high-temperature accelerant chemicals was based on the information investigators had available at that time," Taylor said.

Recently, investigators have found new information, including the possibility that a quantity of lumber was stored in the building and may have helped to boost the temperature of the fire. Investigators also found that a 440-volt electrical line was still linked to a power panel and may have been the source of sparks. High heat and sparks are characteristics of what are known as high-temperature accelerant fires, HTAs.

"That new information came to light and they re-evaluated their findings," Taylor said.

A new report that includes a review of 25 fires thought to be HTA fires is being prepared by Steve Carman, a division agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Bill Dietz, director of the forensic division of the ATF laboratory near San Francisco has worked with Carman in research for the still uncompleted report.

"Carman has shown that there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that all of the 25 fires reported to be HTA are proven, that there is the possibility of alternative methods of those being started," Dietz said.

Carman does not say absolutely they are not high-temperature accelerant fires, Dietz added.

Darrell Johnson, father of the fallen firefighter, said he thinks the claims of arson and high-temperature accelerants in the Blackstock fire were used by the fire department to cover up it's inability to determine the true cause of the fire and divert attention from how the department fought the Blackstock fire. The Seattle Fire Department was criticized and fined by the state for how it tracked firefighters battling the Blackstock fire.