Bargain Square fire determined to be human caused; Adelante to rebuild

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Belen Fire Department officials still aren't sure what the exact cause of the May fire was that severely damaged Adelante's Bargain Square building, but they do know it was human-caused.

Belen Fire Department Lt. Charles Cox, the department's training officer and fire investigator, said after a lengthy investigation by local and state fire officials, they can rule out several potential causes, including electrical or lightning.

After ruling those two out, Cox said it's clear that someone intentionally caused the fire.

Firefighters responded to an alarm just 20 minutes before midnight on May 18. Cox said his investigation began early the next morning. In an effort to expedite the investigation, he also called the state fire marshal's office to help.

"The information we received from the alarm company was that they received an automatic alarm from (the northeast part of the building), the covered-fenced area of the building," Cox said. "When I talked to the first arriving crew, they said they had heavy fire in that covered area."

Cox said his investigation verified that was where the fire began. He said he took samples in the area, which, he says, came back positive for hydrocarbon, a flammable substance. But further testing couldn't determine what type of substance it was.

"That's where we stand right now," Cox said. "We know exactly where it started, but we don't know how it started.

"But we do know human factor is involved. There was no electrical problems, there was no act of God — no lightning."

Cox said he believes the fire started close to the ground and the flames went up, through the building, causing significant damage to the building. He said while the gates were locked, there had been earlier break-ins in that particular area.

"We don't have any suspects, so if anyone has information about this case, they can call us or the police department. We're willing to listen to them," Cox said. "It's still an open case.

Since the fire, Adelante's Bargain Square has been closed, and its employees have been transferred to the Los Lunas store.

Jill Beets, communications director for Adelante, said while they've received the insurance money, it's $90,000 short of what it will cost to reconstruct the building.

"We thought about knocking the whole thing down and rebuild, but we had issues with the flood plain," Beets said. "So we decided to reconstruct, build on the footprint of what we already have."

Beets said the Bargain Corral, the open area where the fire started, will be enclosed at an added cost of $18,000.

Since the store has been closed, Beets said the building has been broken into three times and the windows shot out. She said someone even ripped out some copper wire.

Now, she said, the building has an alarm and a security guard has been hired to help protect the building.

Because the entire roof on the building is off, Beets said the rain has damaged everything inside the store, causing a mold problem.

"We are working hard to get the store reopened," she said. "We have two quotes, and are waiting for one more. I think we'll be starting construction in early October, and hope to be open in at least March."

In the meantime, donations are being accepted at both the Los Lunas Bargain Center and a temporary drop-off bin near the Belen site. Beets said because the entire inventory is damaged, they are in desperate need of more donations when the Belen store reopens.

Cash donations also are needed to help cover renovation costs, she said. For more information, visit www.goadelante.org.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.