Cigarettes cited as likely cause of two area fires

Fatal Toms Brook blaze, Alms House fire both accidental

By Joe Beck

Two major spring fires, one of them fatal, appear to have been caused by careless use of cigarettes, Shenandoah County Fire Marshal David Ferguson said Friday.

Ferguson said his investigations into a fatal fire at 55 Jessica Place in Toms Brook in March and another fire that destroyed the historic Alms House in Mauertown in April were closed recently. Evidence showed that burning cigarettes ignited both fires, Ferguson said.

The Toms Brook fire took the life of Kikuko Dischleit, 86. Ferguson said the state Medical Examiner ruled that she died from fire and smoke inhalation. Her husband, William Dartnell, 81, was found dead inside the house with her, but Ferguson said a recent Medical Examiner’s report concluded that Dartnell had died of a heart attack hours before the fire.

Ferguson said Dartnell was a heavy smoker, and it appeared that the he had been smoking just before his death. One or more of the cigarettes he had been smoking ignited a fire around the living room sofa where Dartnell slept, Ferguson said.

“At this point in time, it’s more than likely he was smoking a cigarette and that cigarette was more than likely the cause of the demise of Mrs. Dartnell,” Ferguson said, referring to Dischleit by her husband’s name.

Ferguson described the investigation into the Alms House fire as a long, painstaking effort requiring several phases that included calling in the Loudoun County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management to double check the work that had been done.

Ferguson said his conclusion that the fire was smoking related was not definitive, and he has not ruled out an electrical failure in the kitchen as a cause. But Ferguson said he has completed gathering and analyzing the available evidence. Much of it indicates that one or more persons was smoking on the building’s front porch before going to bed around 3 a.m.

Fire and rescue crews were dispatched to the building at 192 County Farm Road at about 5:45 a.m. No one was injured but the fire destroyed the entire building, the oldest parts of which dated back to 1829.

Ferguson said it appeared that someone tossed a lighted cigarette from the porch into a newly laid bed of mulch, which provided fuel for igniting the fire.

“At this point, everything is pointing in my estimation to an improperly disposed cigarette causing the fire that night,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said the management of the Alms House banned smoking on the porch, although people were allowed to smoke in a designated area away from the building. Ferguson said several people he interviewed told him they were smoking in the approved area, but an informant who had spoken to the same people said they admitted smoking on the porch.

Ferguson said yearly fire inspections at the Alms House consistently found cigarette butts and other signs of smoking around the porch. A fire had broken out several years ago on the porch but had been quickly extinguished, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said when he arrived at the scene of April’s fire not long after it started, it was “very evident” the fire originated around the front porch.

Ferguson said he ruled out arson as a cause of the fire after interviewing numerous people and checking out their alibis. The evidence shows no sign of criminal intent on anyone’s part, he added.

Ferguson called the deaths of Dischleit and Dartnell a “sad” event that came after fire and rescue crews had answered “numerous” calls for medical assistance at their residence over the years. Dartnell, who had little or no mobility, was a heavy smoker, and first responders and others had urged him to quit or dispose of his cigarettes in a manner that would reduce the risk of fire.

Ferguson said many fatal fires are the result of unsafe handling of smoking materials.

“It’s almost like people think they’re invulnerable,” Ferguson said. “They think this will never happen to them, but I’ve had at least three other cases in which smoking resulted in a fatality.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com