Boise & Garden City

Boise arson: Who lit the International Market on fire?

Boise International Market fire gutted businesses

Businesses in the Boise International Market were a total loss after a fire on Sept. 5, 2015.
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Businesses in the Boise International Market were a total loss after a fire on Sept. 5, 2015.

Randy Harkelroade is either incredibly lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it.

Twice in five years the Boise businessman, who is former president of the Central Bench Neighborhood Association, has found himself watching in horror as flames consumed neighboring buildings in a 57-year-old strip mall near the corner of Franklin and Curtis roads.

He’s fortunate that neither the 2010 Vietnamese Restaurant fire nor the 2015 Boise International Market fire put him out of business. But it’s been rough sledding.

The first fire caused $260,000 in smoke and water damage to his building, which shared a wall with a tattoo parlor that was also destroyed. He lost tenant Family Dollar, which had been there five years, because of a contract clause allowing an out if the store had to be closed more than 30 days. It was three years before Harkelroade was able to reopen the building with his own business, Once More Collectors Mall.

His building wasn’t damaged by the Boise International Market fire in September, but it has affected his property value and the bottom line at his store. He’s seen fewer customers since, and he fears things will only get worse as people steer clear of the area because it’s an eyesore.

“It still has not rebounded,” Harkelroade said. “It’s not good.”

The first fire was accidental, caused by malfunctioning refrigeration units that ignited nearby cardboard boxes. The second was intentionally set. Boise police in early January announced there’s evidence it was arson.

Average arson fire loss in the U.S. in 2010 was $17,612. Arsons of industrial/manufacturing structures resulted in the highest average losses: $133,717 per arson.

Treasure Valley businesses aren’t often the victims of this kind of crime, but it might not be as rare as you think. There were 41 structure fires on commercial properties that were deemed suspicious or to be arson from 2010 through 2015, according to data from eight Valley fire departments compiled by the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office.

MYSTERIOUS FIRE

It’s unclear how long the Boise International Market was burning Sept. 5 before a member of the public called 911 at 11:44 p.m. The building was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived from Station 6 on Franklin Road — just three-quarters of a mile away. No one was injured in the blaze.

An employee of the nearby Babylon Market, who did not want to be named in this article, said he was hanging out with Iraqi friends that night. The group used to play games like dominoes in an empty business space next to Babylon.

“Some American guy came to our friend who was standing outside smoking,” the man recalled. “He said, ‘I see fire inside.’ 

Several of the Iraqis went to look. Through the window, all they could see was a small glow coming from behind a counter, the man said. They did not smell smoke or actually see the fire, so they thought “maybe a stove was open,” he said. The front door was locked, and they decided to call emergency dispatch rather than try to enter on their own.

Within minutes, the fire grew quickly, and there was an explosion that blew out the front window, he recalled.

Initially, investigators believed the fire was an accident.

In the days after, Fire Marshal Romeo Gervais said it started in or near a garbage can in the coffee shop area near the front of the building. Initial review of footage from a video camera inside the building didn’t reveal anything sinister, he said.

SUSPICIOUS

Omid Mousa and his older brother, Nawid — refugees from Kabul, Afghanistan, who have lived in Boise for eight years — worked at their coffee business, Kahve Coffee, on the day of the fire. Omid, a 25-year-old college student, worked until about 5 p.m. Nawid, a 27-year-old engineer and entrepreneur, worked until closing at 9:30 p.m. Nawid recalled it as a normal night, with nothing amiss.

“My brother took out the trash. It was empty,” Omid said. “At the end of the night, we always take the trash out.”

On Nov. 30, almost three months after the fire, Boise police spokesman Ryan Larrondo told the Statesman that detectives were waiting for “lab results.” In early January, the department announced the fire was arson.

Fire and police officials declined to answer questions for this story.

Harkelroade said he knew something was up long before the announcement. Officials from numerous agencies returned to the building about six weeks after the fire and spent several days picking through it.

“They were there for two or three days, eight hours a day,” he recalled.

19.5 percent Share of arson fires in U.S. in 2010 that were cleared with arrests or other exceptional means, the FBI says. Solve rates were slightly lower for arsons at commercial properties.

ANY MOTIVE?

One restaurateur fears it was a hate crime, though Boise police and fire investigators said in January that they have no evidence to indicate that.

“I’m scared it’s going to happen again,” said Salam Bunyan, who is reopening The Goodness Land on Overland Road later this month.

Part of what added to his fear was a Dec. 1 fire that gutted the Ali Baba Hookah Bar on Chinden Boulevard in Garden City.

Boise firefighters were not able to find the cause, so it was ruled “undetermined,” spokeswoman Tammy Barry said. But nothing during the investigation gave any indication it was suspicious, said Garden City Police Chief Rick Allen.

The building is owned by Kissler Enterprises LLC. Jim Kissler told the Statesman that fire investigators suspected the cause was electrical.

Omid Mousa said he was unaware of anyone being hateful toward the market or its vendors — other than one instance in which a man came inside and said disparaging things. He just chalked it up to someone having a bad day and “venting.”

“We definitely want (the arsonist) to get caught. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hate crime or not,” he said. “Arson is arson.”

Larrondo, the Boise police spokesman, told the Statesman that revealing whether any suspects have been identified could compromise the investigation.

SPRINKLERS?

In short, no, the market building didn’t have them.

Why not? Boise staff describe International Fire Code as full of nuance.

“There’s over 100 different tradeoffs for sprinklers. It’s fairly complicated,” said Tim Frost, who reviews fire sprinkler plans for the city. “It’s not a matter of yes and no.”

A building’s size, maximum number of people, uses and type of construction are the main factors at play, said Jason Blais, building official for the city.

The Boise International Market was right on the edge of a 12,000-square-foot size threshold. The removal of a wood canopy at its front dropped the building to just under that mark.

It had 16 businesses and many uses. Some vendors sold rugs and clothing, others coffee or food. There was a dining area with tables and chairs, and an event stage with seating to watch performers.

Former Boise fire plans examiner Craig Hanson, who is now a fire planner for a different city, told the Statesman he determined the building would mainly be used for serving food and hosting community gatherings. In his opinion, it fell under a type of mixed use that includes restaurants and would have required additional fire protection (like sprinklers) or mitigation (such as a fire wall).

Ultimately, city staff classified the building in a slightly different grouping that includes community halls, meaning it would not have to have sprinklers. And, Blais said, the question was somewhat moot because its dining area and maximum occupancy were both small enough to exempt it from a sprinkler requirement.

Before the renovations from the 2010 fire, the material the building was made from — a mix of wood and concrete — was at the bottom on a scale of fire concerns for nine different construction types. Removing the canopy meant the structure’s walls were all noncombustible materials, improving its standing.

Though the city did not require sprinklers, fire marshal Gervais said he recommended installing them more than once. Patrick McKeegan, the architect for the market project, also recalled recommending sprinklers. It was the building owners’ prerogative, he said.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” McKeegan told the Statesman last fall. “People keep asking that all the time — why didn’t they have fire sprinklers in there?”

Market creators Lori Porreca and her husband, Miguel Gaddi, said they had plans to install sprinklers when they expanded the site. They anticipated bringing a nano-brewery into the market and adding on to the west side of the building.

REQUIREMENTS NEXT DOOR

The city required Harkelroade to install sprinklers in his nearby building before he reopened it as a collectors mall in June 2013.

What was different there? Upholstered furniture.

“They said, ‘If there’s one chair with fabric on it, you’re going to have sprinklers,’ ” Harkelroade recalled.

U.S. fire codes were overhauled after nine firefighters were killed in 2007 at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C. The 2012 International Fire Code, as adopted by the state of Idaho, said that mercantiles selling or displaying upholstered furniture or mattresses in buildings over 5,000 square feet must have sprinkler systems.

“When it first came out (in 2009), if there was any upholstered furniture, they required sprinklers,” Idaho State Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl said. “Then they realized, ‘We’re hurting mom and pop stores,’ ” leading to the current size threshold.

The codes are not developed on a whim. There’s a great deal of research, deliberation and debate. It’s a consensus code. It’s used from coast to coast.

Knute Sandahl, Idaho state fire marshal

Harkelroade couldn’t get an occupancy permit without the sprinklers. He spent about $40,000 to install the system in his 8,500-square-foot store, rejecting a suggestion that he build a fire wall to create two smaller store spaces. A floor-to-ceiling fire wall, with fire doors, would have cost another $20,000 and reduced the value of the property, he said.

Harkelroade was shocked when he heard the city wasn’t requiring the Boise International Market to have sprinklers.

“I screamed like a stuck pig. We’re a mercantile, and they’re a mercantile. It’s the same thing,” he said.

ARSON DATA IS SPOTTY

The Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office collects information from across the state, but reporting is not required, and many fire departments don’t provide data.

In 2014, 86 of 239 fire departments did not provide data to Sandahl. His office monitors news reports on fires around the state.

“We’re limited statutorily on what we can do, but we may say, ‘We’re noticing a pocket in this area. Do you need help?’ Sometimes they take us up on it,” Sandahl said.

Many of the departments that aren’t reporting are rural, all-volunteer departments. There’s an online system for reporting, but that actually might be a deterrent when agencies have to convert reports, Sandahl said. To encourage reporting, the state office is offering to help input handwritten reports.

To be eligible for FEMA grants, departments must report their fire data. One state grant program last year also began requiring that step, Sandahl said.

Most Treasure Valley fire departments do report their data. The Statesman obtained six years of data on arsons or suspicious fires at select properties, including retail stores, restaurants, offices and warehouses. The data show a total of 41 fires from 2010-2015, including five last year. The six-year high was in 2010, when there were 11 arson/suspicious fires in the Valley — nine in Boise alone.

Also misleading are state data on losses due to fires, Sandahl said. That’s because many departments do not provide estimates.

“They either don’t venture a guess, or they underestimate out of concern about litigation or insurance,” he said.

One example is the Barbacoa restaurant fire in 2010 — not among the 41 arsons or suspicious fires, as its cause was officially undetermined. The Boise Fire Department’s detailed report to the state did not include any estimate of the loss.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

You can help

Have information about the Boise International Market fire? Call the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office Arson Line at 877-752-7766 or Crime Stoppers at 343-2677 (COPS). You also may submit your tip on their website, or text “Tip236” plus your message to 274637 (CRIMES). A $5,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest and/or conviction in the case.

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