By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — The fire that destroyed El Rancho Grande appears to have been accidental in nature.
“The cause is probably going to be ruled electrical,” said Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller.
Though the official report has not yet been filed, three investigators reached the same conclusion: Those investigating the fire were local fire investigator for Ottumwa, the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office and an adjuster from the insurance company.
Two years ago, a much smaller fire was blamed on vandals. Miller said the department had received calls Tuesday and Wednesday suggesting they check and make sure this fire was not purposely set.
Wednesday, investigators found an electrical light socket in the basement with a burn pattern proving that is where this fire started.
Though the fire is out, there is still danger associated with the site. There are concerns about a possible collapse of the walls.
“We had to have that alley blockaded back there,” Miller said, worrying a motorist would be driving through at just the wrong time.
The roof is already gone, there are virtually no supports for the walls and there’s a large hole through the center of the building’s second story.
In 2009, health inspectors had noticed people were living upstairs at the restaurant. Those people were threatened with closure of the business and arrest if they were found there again. There was no sign of anyone living on the second floor or in the basement after the fire.
Additionally, Ottumwa Fire Department senior officers regularly take their crews through some of the city’s larger or more complex buildings. These walk-throughs let them familiarize themselves with each structure so if there is an emergency, it isn’t the first time a firefighter has seen the structure.
“We did [inspect] El Rancho Grande,” said Miller.
They’d heard about the health department warnings but saw no evidence of anyone living in the building in recent years. A health inspector said they believe the violators may have just been unaware of the law and took the order to move out seriously. And it’s a good thing, Miller said. The fire started about midnight, when people could have been sound asleep.
Another, more financial benefit: Iowa is a state that requires insurance companies to set aside a portion of any settlement so the city itself does not have to pay for the cost of demolition.