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For the week of Dec. 8, 1999 through Dec. 14, 1999

Elkhorn fire report sparks blame questions

Gas line segments sequestered by police

Express Staff Writer

Investigators are stockpiling evidence after this tree-removal truck severed a gas pipe in the Sunrise subdivision a month ago. The resulting explosion destroyed two houses and severely damaged a third. (Express photos by Willy Cook)

Following preliminary investigations, public and private authorities have concluded an explosion and resulting fire that destroyed two homes in Elkhorn’s Sunrise subdivision nearly a month ago were the result of the severing of a gas pipe by a tree-removal truck digging between the houses.

A major remaining question, authorities say, is whether markings spray painted on the ground to indicate where the gas pipe was buried—and where not to dig—were positioned correctly.

Also, investigators disagree on whether enough of the markings, called dig lines, were still visible after being scorched by the fire to determine where the dig lines had been positioned.

These issues stemmed from a package of reports from the state fire marshal and Sun Valley’s fire and police chiefs. Attached documents included written witness statements, police incident reports and correspondence from an insurance company’s lawyer and private investigator.

Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes made the reports public.

"Everybody has different interests," Sun Valley police chief Cam Daggett said Monday of the investigators.

Police were satisfied after they determined no crime had been committed, Daggett said in an interview. Firefighters, he said, want to learn how to avoid similar accidents in the future.

But investigators hired by the insurance companies are driven to ensure their clients don’t pay, Daggett observed.

"Jake Jacobsen is a little aggressive," Daggett said of one private investigator working for USAA Insurance, which holds the policy for one of the homeowners. "His interests are totally different" from publicly funded investigators, he said.

During a telephone interview from his Boise office, Jacobsen contradicted the police and fire departments by saying "we found significant evidence of dig lines" still remaining during the investigation.

This was a reference to police and fire officials saying that not all of the gas line markings were still visible on the ground.

However, Fire Chief Carnes suggested that whether the dig lines were burned away "depends on which insurance company you work for. The one thing I can tell you is the dig lines were obliterated."

Investigators do agree that proof of the dig lines being positioned incorrectly would likely place blame for the fire on the person or company that marked them.

Intermountain Gas Co., which in the Wood River Valley sprays the dig lines as a service to anyone planning excavation, may have to deal with that issue, according to Mike Huntington, vice president of marketing and external affairs for the company.

Gas company technicians use hand-held electronic equipment to determine the location of any buried gas pipes. Once the location has been determined, the technician sprays a dig line on the ground to indicate where not to dig.

Gas company vice president of operations Eldon Book said, "We try to get as close as we can." But, he added, he has "no idea" how accurate the method is.

Book said the gas company occasionally uses maps as an additional aid in locating the pipes, but whether maps were used in this case has not yet been determined.

Landscaping contractor Lawrence Mayle, who hired the tree removal service, said in a written police statement that the dig line was located approximately one foot away from the house.

Mayle said he and tree-removal truck operator Mike Shetler measured the distance from the dig line to the tree they were removing. That distance was over four feet, Mayle said, leaving at least a two feet margin of error for the truck to work safely within.

During the investigation, however, when the entire gas pipe was unearthed, it proved to be located 11 feet away from the house, not one, State Fire Marshal Don Dillard wrote in his report.

A gas company representative indicated that the pipe had been repositioned "quite some time ago" to accommodate an add-on to the house, Dillard’s report said.

In any case, investigators have little doubt that Shetler cut the gas pipe, even if they disagree about the location of the dig line.

As evidence, insurance company investigator Jacobsen logged two eight-inch segments of the gas line with the Sun Valley Police Department on Oct. 28.

Five days later, Jacobsen logged another piece of pipe as evidence with the police department, this time taken from the root ball of the tree, which had since been replanted in Hailey.

In a letter to police chief Daggett, a USAA Insurance company lawyer asked that the police department "not release this evidence to either [USAA Insurance] or Intermountain Gas Co. without the agreement of both the parties involved."

"There is positive evidence to prove what happened," Jacobsen said during Monday’s interview. However, he added, he could not comment on whether he thought the dig line was marked incorrectly.

Investigators have gathered "quite a bit" of other evidence, Jacobsen said, including a gas supply meter from one of the houses.

Damages from the explosion and fire have been estimated by the Sun Valley Fire Department at more than $1.6 million. Insurance company and gas company representatives declined to comment on any pending litigation.

However, Carnes and Daggett both said that in their experience, involved parties could prepare for a year or more before taking a matter like the Elkhorn explosion and fire to court.


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