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Arson information could lead to reward

Information about a May 14 arson could be worth up to $5,000 if it leads to a conviction, Bellefontaine Fire Chief Andy Fissel reports.

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FILE — Information leading to the conviction of the person(s) responsible for the May 14 arson fire at 208 W. Chillicothe Ave. could be worth $5,000, fire officials said Wednesday. (EXAMINER FILE PHOTO | JOEL E. MAST)

Under the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Blue Ribbon Arson Campaign, local authorities can apply for the reward on behalf of the witness.

The fire, which was reported around 6:05 p.m., destroyed the former Foos mansion at 208 W. Chillicothe Ave.

Investigators have ruled it an arson. Under the law, arson can be an intentional act or an accidental event that resulted from another criminal act.

Anyone with information can call the department at 599-6168.

Firefighters spent hours fighting the blaze which essentially gutted the structure.

Now city officials are worried about future safety problems.

Service-Safety Director James Holycross said he has issued a condemnation order and is trying to work with property owner Jennifer Van Horn of West Liberty.

“It’s really unfortunate,” he said. “She had intentions to fix it up.”

She had no insurance on the two-story home that was built in the 1800s.

Mr. Holycross said it is regrettable that it must come down, but it poses a threat to neighboring properties, including the U.S. Post Office at 132 S. Detroit St. and to anyone who sneaks onto the property.

The tall brick walls are not supported, especially on the second floor, he noted. The blaze also has weakened the brick and mortar increasing the likelihood the walls will fall.

He is hoping to expedite its demolition and he is looking into whether or not the city has any money available to help with the costs.

Under the city ordinances, Ms. Van Horn has to come up with a plan within 60 days and complete the plan within four months.

She did not return a call seeking comment.

The mansion, which was divided into apartments decades ago, was vacant and without any utilities at the time of the fire.

It was the second major fire in the downtown area in a two-week period.

On May 6, an arson fire at Smith Jewelers, 110 W. Columbus Ave., nearly roared out of control when firefighters encountered a flashover on the second floor hours after their initial response.

Michael Rhodus, 24, of Bellefontaine, has been charged with first-degree felony aggravated arson; fourth-degree felony counts of theft and receiving stolen property; two counts of breaking and entering; and single counts of vandalism and possession of criminal tools, which are fifth-degree felonies.

According to officers of the Bellefontaine Police Department, Mr. Rhodus forced entry into Sheila Minnich’s new law office, which adjoins the building in which Smith Jewelers is located, and damaged a wall in an attempt to enter the neighboring business. Unable to gain access through the wall, the suspect allegedly broke into the front door of the jewelry store and stole several thousand dollars in jewelry before setting a fire in the store.

Chief Fissel has said the Smith fire exposed the need for a fire prevention officer to help educate business owners about protection and fire suppression options.

Smith Jewelers did not have an alarm system, so the fire burned for about four hours before a passerby spotted smoke coming from the building around 5:45 a.m.

An alarm system would have given firefighters early warning of the fire. Instead, it burned through the floor and the large wooden joists below, dumping a display case into the basement.

Damage was extensive to the business which remains closed.

The fire also built up heat, reaching temperatures as high as 1,500 degree Fahrenheit, Chief Fissel indicated, that produce conditions ideal for the flashover.

If a firefighter was not in position to quickly extinguish the flashover, it mostly like would have spread the fire to neighboring buildings.

Chief Fissel said business owners can contract with an alarm company which provides around-the-clock monitoring or they can purchase less expensive systems that will alert them via a smart phone application.

Some of those systems also offer cameras which can show what is happening via the phone connection.

He realizes retrofitting an historic building with a fire suppression system would cost too much for most owners, but some have made that investment.

“It can be done, but the owner has to make that commitment,” he said.

Providing early notice of a fire is most helpful, he said, but firefighters also need to get in.

There are services which provide lock boxes outside businesses with keys to enter the structure. Dozens of local businesses use the concept and have experienced no problems with it, the chief said.

The company provides keys to the lock boxes to the fire department and tracks the keys. If the department retires an engine, it must have a replacement truck or turn in the key that was assigned to the old truck.

Only firefighters are authorized to access the box in fire-related emergencies, he said.

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