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Free pile on West Side Road goes up in flames; fire labeled 'suspicious'
Forensic evidence was nowhere to be found.
But local fire officials are calling the blaze that consumed a stockpile of discarded mechanical and household items offered as free recyclables on San Juan Island's West Side Road suspicious or malicious, just the same.
"It's not realistic that such a fire would have resulted from an accidental cause," San Juan Island Fire Department Chief Steve Marler said. "There isn't anything physical to investigate. If I had to write it up as an investigation, it would be listed as either suspicious or malicious."
Better known as the West Side Road Free Pile, the collection of discarded items went up in flames in the early morning hours of July 18. Firefighters arrived at the scene at about 2:30 a.m. and battled the blaze for about two hours before they were able to contain, extinguish and put it to rest, Marler said.
The fire was intense enough that its flames blackened and scorched a tall column of fir and madrona trees located beside the pile and left a charred ring of branches some 30 feet above the pile's pinnacle.
While public safety officials have scant evidence suggesting the fire was deliberately set, Kevin Roth, founder and caretaker of the Free Pile, maintains that's the only explanation. And he believes he knows who's responsible.
In fact, Roth said he has no doubt that the same individuals who tried twice before to torch the pile without success, first in September and then again in April, set it ablaze a week ago.
He also believes it's retaliation for naming names of those that he suspects of pilfering the pile for goods that can be sold for drugs, like copper, or of dealing drugs on the island as well, like methamphetamine and heroin.
"It all started two days after I put a sign up," Roth said. "The sign said 'no scrapping, no midnight shopping and no (a name)."
On the bright side, he said the Free Pile might perhaps signal to others how volatile those who are deeply involved in drugs can be.
"Maybe this will awaken people on the island just what these people are capable of," he said.
Though perhaps suspicious, Undersheriff Jon Zerby said the sheriff's department lacks any hard evidence that would turn the Free Pile fire into a criminal investigation.
A fixture on West Side Road for more than a decade, the Free Pile sits along a stretch of road that's surrounded by tall trees, thick brush and that is somewhat remote. Marler suspects that few, if any, neighbors would have noticed the flames or that a driver would have been traveling in the area at that time of day.
As for the extent of damage, he said it's most likely the result of the amount of time that the fire was burning.
"It was probably burning for quite awhile," Marler said.