Weatherford Democrat

July 14, 2013

Attorney raises issues with fire marshal documentation


Weatherford Democrat

— By CHRISTIN COYNE

A lack of record-keeping at the Parker County Fire Marshal’s Office has left a Parker County man and his wife, made homeless after a fire last summer, essentially unable to pursue legal avenues to recover their losses, according to their attorney.

Hurst attorney Randy Hall, representing 52-year-old Allen Wickham, the owner of a travel trailer that caught fire when a friend’s home burned last summer, said he is having trouble getting any answers from the Parker County Fire Marshal’s Office about the cause of the fire despite closure of the investigation. 

Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott said that although he would like to be able to devote more time to fire investigations, his office stays too busy to do a complete report on every fire the office responds to. 

They have provided Hall with all the documentation they have on what the investigator considered a lower-priority accidental fire, according to Scott. 

 

House fire

The couple’s only home was parked on a friend’s property in the 7000 block of Christopher Drive in northern Parker County and was destroyed the night of Aug. 6 when a structure and grass fire caught the trailer on fire. 

Responding ESD No. 1 firefighters reported they found a two-story house fully involved, with a camper trailer beginning to catch on fire due to exposure, as well as a large pit/grass fire in the vicinity of the house, when they arrived around 10:45 p.m.  

Wickham, a disabled veteran, was not home at the time of the fire and his wife, who is deaf, realized what was going on when her dogs began barking and was able to get out of the camper without injury. 

The fire destroyed the travel trailer, leaving it uninhabitable and irreparable, according to Hall, who said all the contents burned up, as well. The destroyed trailer was not insured, leaving the couple without a home or belongings and financially devastated, Hall said. 

The property owner’s house, which was inhabited and being remodeled, and contents had insurance coverage totaling more than $800,000, according to the property owner’s statement to the fire marshal’s office. 

Wickham reported his camper to be worth nearly $20,000 and valued the property inside at $500,000. 

 

Investigation records

Though records show an investigator with the fire marshal’s office was called to the scene and received written statements from the property owners the following week, Hall said he’s been provided no causation report or statement of the fire’s cause by the investigator. 

Hall, who said he handled fire claims for a long time and has represented clients in Tarrant, Dallas, Collin and Denton counties, said he’s never seen a case where an investigator goes out to a fire but does not complete a report. 

Letters from the county attorney’s office responding to Hall’s record requests note the lack of causation information. 

Of the 71 pages initially provided to Hall by the fire marshal’s office, there is no investigative report that states the suspected cause of the fire, assistant county attorney Fred Barker wrote in response to the original records request. The investigator, who was on medical leave at the time of the records request, was unable to remember if he made a report or not.

“We find it hard to believe that the fire marshal’s office would fail to make a final report concerning a residential fire if it is able to do so,” Barker wrote in a follow-up letter in March, saying he assumed the investigator would provide a report at some point in the future but had no clear assurance that would occur.

Because Wickham was not there at the time and there is no available record of who is responsible for the fire, he faces a significant obstacle in any attempt to recover his losses, according to Hall. 

“I’m kind of desperate because my client’s desperate,” said Hall, who is representing Wickham pro bono.

 

Response

The county’s three fire investigators get so many fires, they don’t do a complete report on every fire they go to, Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott said, adding, “We would never leave our desk.”

“We work hard to get to everything we can and do as much as we can,” Scott said. “Every fire deserves as much attention as we can give it.”

The date of the fire did appear to be a busy day for the fire investigator on duty. The homes of two families were destroyed by fire in separate incidents in Parker County earlier that day, according to a report in the Democrat.  

The Christopher Drive fire began as trash fire, Scott said, and the responding investigator found nothing incindiary in nature. 

The fire didn’t appear to warrant much extra attention at that moment, Scott said.

The job of his office is to investigate the criminal aspect of fire, Scott said, noting that the investigator determined there had been no criminal activity and there was nothing suspicious about the fire. 

“It was an accident,” Scott said. “We’re not going to waste a bunch of time where there’s not a need for it,” Scott said, who noted that his office also handles the county’s environmental investigations.

Hall also questioned why Scott’s office didn’t appear to use other resources in the investigation, saying he’s found that it’s typical that a fire marshal will also obtain reports, pictures and other information from any experts sent to do an investigation for the insurance company. 

Though an investigator with Unified Investigations Sciences was reportedly sent to the scene by the property owner’s insurance company, the fire marshal’s office reported it did not have any information from the private investigator, either. 

Scott said they did later request a copy of the report but the company, aware that Wickham’s attorney was involved, declined to provide the information to the fire marshal’s office. 

In hindsight, Scott said he does wish the fire investigator had completed a report in this case and said he has made changes. 

“I’m beating the guys a little bit more over the head,” Scott said, adding he is “double-checking documentation to make sure it is where it needs to be.”

Additional manpower would be helpful, as well, according to Scott. 

“We’re currently going through the process to hire another investigator to help out with that,” Scott said.  

Some days, such as the recent Fourth of July holiday when the county received 83 fire calls between 9 p.m. and midnight, including reports of five structure fires, they get slammed and have to prioritize, Scott said, adding they have to pick the ones they respond to and hope they don’t miss something else.