OJAI — Despite a black family's contention that their Oak View home was deliberately torched, fire investigators said Monday that last week's blaze was not an arson, but some kind of accident.
"There was no crime," said fire investigator Peter Cronk of the swift-moving fire that displaced 10 people and injured three. A full report on the fire is expected to be released on Wednesday, he said.
Rummaging through the fire-gutted house last Tuesday, fire officials said the pre-dawn blaze was either arson or an accident. But after several days of investigation, fire and sheriff's officials said there was no evidence to suggest that the fire was deliberately set.
"There's no physical evidence to support a crime," Lt. Craig Husband of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's major crimes division said Monday. "It's not an arson, at least not an arson where anything was thrown into the house."
Husband said it is possible that the fire was started by someone, possibly by a family member, who was smoking inside the house.
The idea that a cigarette started the blaze was among the early avenues of investigation, but family members have adamantly denied that anyone in the house was smoking when the fire started.
"I don't smoke," 13-year-old Shuwana Stanford said Friday. Shuwana, who suffered first- and second-degree burns to her face in the fire, has said she was sleeping on the living room couch when the fire broke out.
From the beginning, Stanford family members have said they think they were the target of an attack.
Although Shuwana's grandfather Lonnie Stanford would not comment Monday on the investigators' conclusion that it was not an arson, he had earlier said he was standing by what he saw on the morning of the fire.
"It didn't start itself and we didn't start it, so how did it get started?" Stanford said Friday. "I know what I've seen."
Family members told investigators that they heard a "pop" before the blaze started in the living room and saw a single stream of fire, as if from a flammable liquid, moments before the modest three-bedroom house was engulfed in flames.
They also described seeing a hole in the living room window before evacuating the burning structure.
But a dog trained to detect arson was unable to identify any flammable liquids in the charred house, and investigators could find no evidence of a hole because the windows were blown out by the fire.
Robert M. Featherston, owner of the burned home and a former insurance company investigator for 12 years, has said he believes the fire was the result of a hate crime.
"I don't see any cause for the fire and fires have to have causes," he said Monday. "My insurance pays for it if it's arson or accident, but I think the community has a right to know what happened."
Across the Ojai Valley, support for the family has continued to pour in during the past week. About $3,400 has been donated to the Stanfords through a relief fund set up at Ojai Valley Bank, and dozens of bags of clothing and housewares have been dropped off at local fire stations.
"It's just been overwhelming," fire spokesman Norman Plott said. "I've taken over five truckloads of clothes, blankets and cookware. The community has helped so much we've had to shut off the clothes drive."
Plott said in addition to the donations, Happy Valley School has offered the family temporary residence in one of its dorms. The American Red Cross had relocated the family to an Ojai motel after the fire.
"There's a lot of negative things that happen in everyday life," Plott said. "And on the heels of something very tragic, there's been a lot of positive support."