SEA ISLE CITY – An investigation continues into the cause of the Good Friday fire in the 7800 block of Pleasure Avenue that destroyed three beachfront structures and damaged nearby homes.
Interviews of eye witnesses, reviews of photos and videos of the fire as it progressed, and reports from electrical, gas and other engineers are still being collected and analyzed, said Deputy Fire Marshal Rocco DiSilvestro of the Office of the Cape May County Fire Marshal.
Arson is about the only cause that isn’t under serious consideration, DiSilvestro said.
“I haven’t been able to rule it out,” he said. “But I’m staying 99 percent away from it. I’m pretty sure I can eliminate that.”
The fire, which occurred on April 18, was “a perfect storm of wind, humidity and certain conditions that came together,” DiSilvestro said.
It left little in its wake but debris, which Sea Isle City construction official Neil Byrne said must be removed. He said he has issued a demolition permit for 7805 Pleasure Ave. and expects the lot to be cleared as soon as today (May 2). Although the demolition permits are mostly a formality, Byrne said he expects to issue permits for the other two properties soon, and that he has set a May 16 deadline for the lots to be cleared.
“We need the properties cleaned,” Byrne said. “The char has to be cleared, and there’s some metal there that needs to be cleared.”
Issuing demolition permits allows the city to remove the properties from its records, although tax assessor Joseph Berrodin said the homeowners would continue to pay taxes on the structures through Oct. 1. If the lots are vacant at that time, the improvement assessments will be removed and the owners will pay taxes on land value only.
Currently, the improvements are assessed at $412,700 and $413,200 for 7805 Pleasure Ave., a two-unit condominium that was built in late summer 2013; $228,800 and $534,200 for 7807 Pleasure Ave., a two-unit condominium that was built in 2002; and $455,800 for 7817 Pleasure Ave., a duplex built in 2001 that was converted to a single-family home. Assessments on the three parcels of land range from $900,000 to $1.9 million.
About 24 hours after the fire started, the county fire marshal’s office had completed its origin-and-cause investigation and turned the scene over to the City of Sea Isle, which immediately gave the homeowners permission to tear down the buildings, Byrne said.
DiSilvestro said the investigation is “going to take awhile” and gave no estimated date for when it is expected to be completed. He said his office is in the process of eliminating different causes, and relies upon the expertise of engineers to determine whether damage to a structure occurred pre- or post-fire.
One of the greatest aids in establishing a timeline for the fire’s progression has come from photographs and videos supplied by eye-witnesses, DiSilvestro said.
“People walking on the beach at the time, taking photos of their families, didn’t realize there were puffs of smoke coming from the houses behind their families,” DiSilvestro said.
Those photos, some of which were taken two minutes before 911 was called, are proving extremely helpful, he said, in pinpointing when and where the fire began.