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Police: Army Surplus fire was arson

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | July 9, 2024 1:00 AM

The fire that gutted the Army Surplus 1 store in downtown Sandpoint was intentionally set, Sandpoint Police said Monday.

The announcement comes following a visit to the site by the Idaho State Fire Marshal's Office and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has launched an investigation into the fire. The agencies are being assisted in the investigation by Sandpoint Police.

The fire at the longtime Sandpoint business was reported about 10:15 p.m. July 4, shortly after the fireworks show ended, with heavy smoke pouring from the gabled southern end of the building. Soon after fire crews arrived, flames could visibly be seen coming from that end of the building.

"Emergency personnel ascertained that the fire was predominantly concentrated on the south side of the structure and appeared suspicious in nature," Corey Coon, Sandpoint Police chief, said in a press release issued by the city Monday.

Coon said the department received several hours of surveillance video, two 10-second snippets of which were released to the public. After examining the footage, an individual was observed walking east on Oak Street at about 10 p.m. and subsequently turning down the parking lot behind Army Surplus.

"This individual then proceeded into the alleyway, stopping approximately halfway down, before approaching the south wall of Army Surplus," Coon said. "After a short period, a flame on the south wall is observed."

Police said the individual was observed stepping back from the flame before walking east to Fifth Avenue and leaving south.

Sandpoint fire and police responded to the scene within minutes of the fire being reported, shortly after the community fireworks show at Sandpoint City Beach ended.

"Once it went through the roof, it was clear we weren't going to be going inside," Sandpoint Fire Chief Gavin Gilcrease said the day after the fire, noting the building's different uses and compartmentalization over the years, which added to the challenges faced by crews in fighting the fire.

The oldest section of the 16,000-square-foot building dates back to 1915, while the back western section was built in 1945, and the section fronting Fifth Avenue was built in 1955.

That forced firefighters to surround the building, which sits across Fifth Avenue from Umpqua Bank to the east and across a public parking lot from Matchwood Brewing, the Sandpoint Rock Gym and Evans Brothers Coffee to the west. Located to the north is the Foster's Crossing Antiques structure.

Crews worked through the night to bring the fire under control with creosote-treated timbers, commonly used in the 19th century and the early 20th century, to preserve and prolong the life of timber supports, proving a challenge to extinguish.

The fire is the first major fire since Sandpoint Fire pulled out of the Selkirk Fire Association and the first since a February 2019 blaze gutted two buildings on First Avenue and heavily damaged a third. Five businesses were housed in the buildings gutted by the fire, with a church occupying the heavily damaged third building.

Firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading beyond the two structures to the rest of the historic downtown, battling the blaze, snow, 11-degree temperatures, and spray from aerial hose lines. Damage from the 2019 fire was estimated at roughly $4 million, and the blaze forced several businesses to close and others to relocate, some many months or longer after they were displaced. The cause of the 2019 fire was later determined to be accidental.

The day after the fire, Army Surplus owner Cornel Rasor said he and his family were trying to process what had happened and determine what they needed to do next. He thanked the community for reaching out with messages of support and encouragement.

"We truly do live in the most wonderful place on the planet populated by the most wonderful people around," Rasor said in a Facebook post this weekend. "The outpouring of love and concern has been mind-boggling. My wife and I are so grateful."

Sandpoint Police are asking for all residents and businesses in the area to review any surveillance footage or cellphone video, they may have in an attempt to help identify the individual seen in the video footage. If you have any information, please contact Sandpoint Police at 208-265-1482.

The Idaho State Fire Marshal has classified the fire as arson and is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.  Anyone who has any information and wants to remain anonymous can call the agency's tip line at 1-877-75-ARSON.

The investigation is ongoing, and leads are being vetted as they come in.

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