Report: SWAT tear gas rounds likely ignited Calif. fire

According to the report, the tear gas rounds were non-flammable

By Tony Burchyns
San Jose Mercury News

Police tear gas launched into a Vallejo home in February during a SWAT-team standoff played a role in starting a fire that caused $60,000 in damage and killed two dogs, a fire department report released Monday finds.

However, the Feb. 10 two-alarm blaze at 1041 Castlewood Drive was deemed "accidental in nature," according to the 13-page investigation report.

The exact cause was undetermined. But it likely involved one of the non-flammable rounds hitting or knocking over flammable household products, the report said.

The fire began shortly after police launched 12 tear gas rounds into various parts of the house. Police were trying to ferret out as many as six armed robbery suspects believed to be inside. However, it was later determined that the suspects had slipped away before police established a perimeter.

According to the report, the tear gas rounds were non-flammable. But one of the 37-mm projectiles fired through the back door could have penetrated or knocked over a household product containing flammable chemicals. At that point, vapors could have been released and ignited when reaching an ignition source, such as the flame from a nearby water heater.

Under another scenario, a chemical reaction releasing heat could have occurred when the chemicals inside the projectile came into contact with one or more household products stored inside the utility room.

Thirdly, the report said that a tear gas canister, after penetrating the rear door, may have entered the utility room and either knocked over or breached other containers of household products. If this occurred, then those products could have come into contact with each other, creating a heat-generating reaction that ignited other combustibles.

"Based on the information obtained and the evidence gathered, I believe this was an accidental fire that started in the southeast corner of the utility room," Vallejo Fire Capt. Mark Sharpe wrote in the report.

The report said that no person was responsible for setting the fire, because no one was inside when it started at about 5:30 p.m. Further, there were no incendiary devices found in the home, nor visible evidence of any electrical shortages in wall outlets or appliances.

Three dogs were trapped in the bedrooms. Two perished in the fire and the other ran away after being freed. Sharpe said its owner, a tenant displaced by the fire, who was at work when the Special Weapons and Tactics team arrived, later told him it had been hit and killed by a car.

State Farm Insurance is investigating whether to seek compensation from the city of Vallejo, an agent said. However, he said there's been nothing to suggest the police or their equipment were directly at fault.

"We are all civic-minded," State Farm agent Walt Wadenius said. "We want the police (to do what they have to) to get bad guys off the street."

Darrell Handy, the city's risk manager, said no claims had been filed with his office. A person making a claim against the city has six months to do so from the date of the incident, he said.

Reached by phone, the home's owner, Shram Vohra, of Vallejo, declined to comment. He said his former tenants have found new places to live.

Copyright 2012 San Jose Mercury News

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