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No clear answer yet about cause of fatal fire in Farmington

Though fire investigators have a better idea of what happened in a June 15 fire that left a 69-year-old Farmington woman dead, the exact cause has not yet been determined.

Farmington fire marshal John Powers said he, the state fire marshal and an insurance company investigator are still looking into the cause of the deadly fire on Upper 182nd Street. While they know more now than they did a week ago, Powers said they still have to run a few more tests before the investigators will know the exact cause.

The investigators now know the origin of the blaze was a bedroom where Karen Fortman was sleeping. The fire started on or in or under the bed, Powers said. The cause of the fire has been ruled accidental.

“There are a few possible electrical causes we have identified,” Powers said. “We will have to do some more testing in that area. It is also possible that smoking could have been involved. We need to eliminate some of those potential causes.”

A lightning strike earlier that evening has been considered and ruled out, Powers said, because the strike was over 500 feet away from the home.

The coroner’s report estimates Fortman’s time of death at 3:36 a.m., which is the same time Farmington firefighters received the page. She died as the result of thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.

Powers hopes to see results of the tests on the electrical components by the end of this week.

The fire was reported by the victim’s husband, who was sleeping in another room at the time of the fire. The husband was awakened by the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in the home going off. Powers said it was likely those detectors that saved the husband’s life.

“Smoke detectors do still save lives,” he said.

Processing the incident

Farmington fire chief Tim Pietsch said firefighters knew going to the June 15 fire that there was a victim they would not be able to reach.

“That fire had a very big head start before anybody even noticed it,” Pietsch said. “By the time we got called, the area of origin was pretty much fully involved.”

The home was fully involved when firefighters arrived, Pietsch said. One crew tried to make entry but had to turn back. A second crew was successful in making the entry, but had to turn back when a portion of the ceiling collapsed on top of them. No firefighters were injured, Pietsch said, but the fire burned through the hose they were carrying. At one point, flames reached 40 to 50 feet into the air.

“It’s been quite a while since we’ve had anything like this, structure related. And we have not had a fatality in a structure fire since, we believe, sometime in the mid-1970s.”

Some of the firefighters are still processing the incident, Pietsch said. The department held a critical incident debriefing, which gave members a chance to talk about some of their thoughts related to the fire. This week’s regular training session was also used as a time for firefighters to talk about the incident.

“I want all of my crew to know, there is nothing we could have done to have changed that outcome. By the time we got there, most of the guys on the trucks knew there was a person inside,” he said. “We’ll be talking more about it. I want to make sure everybody is OK, and there are no problems. I suspect there will be a lot of conversation at the meeting and in the next couple of weeks. I’m sure that those who were on the scene will have question or will want to talk about it, and we surely will let them.”

Prior to this month’s fire, the Farmington Fire Department had gone nearly 18 months without a structure fire call, Pietsch added.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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