San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 8th, 2010
Feed store fire cause still undetermined

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Firefighters work to control a blaze that burned down the Amkon General Store and The Critter Shop on LBJ Drive in January. File photo.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Authorities have still not determined the cause of a January fire that destroyed a building housing the Amkon General Store and the Critter Shop.

The charred wreckage of the building, which is more than 80 years old, can still be seen on LBJ Drive just north of Cheatham Street.

San Marcos Fire Marshall Ken Bell said Tuesday that his office’s investigation of the fire is ongoing due to the nature of the merchandise store in the building.

“There is a wide array of flammable and combustible materials that were located in that store for general business purposes that are making the timeliness on determining the cause a lot more difficult that normal,” Bell said. “If this had been this type of building (City Hall) or even a Wal-Mart, where we know things are supposed to be stored for everything — because one Wal-Mart’s the same as another Wal-Mart kind-of-a-deal, and they have flammables and combustibles in there, too — but this is, like, the local feed store. It’s not a corporate. There’s no consistency in application of product display or anything like that.”

In addition to the various feeds and fertilizers, the building contained tanks of propane, which the fire did not ignite. The building also contained animals — mostly fish and reptiles — that perished during or shortly after the fire.

Bell said that before January, no feed store had burned down in San Marcos in 20 years, though he said every fire is unique.

“I’ve had the same apartment complex burn to the ground two different ways — same building, same type, same area, but everything was different about it,” Bell said.

On Jan. 10, the San Marcos Fire Department (SMFD), the South Hays County Fire Department and the New Braunfels Fire Department answered an “all call” issued at about 2 p.m. in response to reports that fire engulfed the building.

Firefighters suppressed the blaze by 5 p.m. and had set up booms to prevent toxic runoff from entering Purgatory Creek and the San Marcos River.

Bell said he has been shuttling evidence from the Amkon/Critter Shop wreckage to the Forensic Arson Laboratory in Austin. The laboratory is administered by the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI), which provides the arson laboratory services at no cost to fire service and other law enforcement agencies in Texas.

TDI, created by the Texas Legislature to manage insurance companies for consumer protection purposes, is not equipped for explosives analysis. Bell said the only cost to the city for the forensic work is gas money for his trips to the TDI lab. Bell is the only city employee authorized to deliver evidence to the laboratory.

Last week, workers were seen shoveling through the wreckage. Randy Marbach owned the feed store for about 20 years and maintains another store at the Junction on Ranch Road 12.

Bell said his office is using vector and pattern analysis techniques to develop hypotheses — educated guesses — to determine where and how the Amkon/Critter Shop fire started. Once his office develops an educated guess, Bell takes the relevant evidence to Austin for examination, which will either support or disprove the hypothesis.

“So if the hypothesis is incorrect, we start all over again,” Bell said. “That’s why it takes a long time.”

Bell said no hypotheses can be ruled out completely until the final determination because new laboratory analyses or variables may vindicate older educated guesses.

“Our main mission in this business is to prevent future fires,” Bell said. “If there is a criminal element involved, then our job is to go suppress that crime and go deal with that. If it is a function of engineering — like, if we had bad electricians and it was an electrical fire — well, then we need to verify that all our electricians have good licenses or we need to do better training or we need to change the electrical code … If it’s something the people did inside — like they set up a heater, for example, to keep the animals warm because it was a cold day — we need to educate the public, ‘Don’t do that.’ That’s our job. We don’t want to be wrong. I’d rather be undetermined than be wrong. A lot of lives are affected by that sort of thing if we’re not correct.”

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