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Suspicious fire destroys Oak Harbor outbuildings

Homeowner Mary Geist talks to an emergency responder after a fire that destroyed her two storage buildings was extinguished. Geist, who provides a home to special needs children, believes the fire was intentionally started in another instance of harassment from which her family has been suffering.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Homeowner Mary Geist talks to an emergency responder after a fire that destroyed her two storage buildings was extinguished. Geist, who provides a home to special needs children, believes the fire was intentionally started in another instance of harassment from which her family has been suffering.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

An Oak Harbor woman who takes in special needs kids has no doubt a fire that consumed two of her outbuildings Wednesday was intentionally set and it is just the latest in a string of incidents that may be racially motivated.

Police and fire investigators aren’t so sure, but they’re looking into the  suspicious blaze that destroyed the outbuildings behind the house in Oak Harbor.

The fire occurred on Mary Geist’s property at 1660 NE 11th Ave. and was first reported by the homeowner at 4:52 p.m., according to Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill.

Geist said she was homeschooling several of her 10 children when they looked out the window and saw “the blackest, billowing cloud of smoke.” First to respond were neighbors with hoses, but in the confusion she couldn’t get their names.

“If it weren’t for them the fire would have got to my house before the firefighters got here,” she said Thursday, asking that her thanks be relayed to the four young men. Geist also grabbed a hose to defend her house and children.

Geist, clearly upset when she was speaking on the phone, said neighborhood kids often start fires in the nearby park. She spearheaded construction of the park, which features playground equipment for children with special needs.

Beyond the fires, Geist said her children have been harassed because of their race, with racist slurs written on the sidewalks and threats made with rocks and pellet guns. Older kids have been followed home from swim practice by an unknown male, who also harassed Geist in a parking lot. Smaller fires have been set in the park.

Responding from the department’s headquarters on Whidbey Avenue, Engine 81 was on the scene within minutes and arrived to find the two outbuildings, both of which were used for storage, engulfed in flames.

“Both were well involved,” Merrill said.

Crews were able to knock down the flames quickly, however, and had the fire under control in less than 10 minutes. Small spot fires continued to pop up for another 10 to 15 minutes due to the structures being packed with storage items that ranged from containers of Christmas decorations to stacks of magazines as well as lawn mowers.

“The stuff just kept burning because we couldn’t get to the base of the fire,” Merrill said.

Geist said the buildings contained many irreplaceable items collected from her past. “It was my life in those sheds,” she said, citing “family heirlooms and antiques from my grandmother.”

The fire chief noted that their efforts were made easier thanks to the homeowner and the neighbors who had been attacking the blaze with garden hoses before the department arrived.

“They helped slow the process down,” Merrill said.

Navy Region Northwest Fire and Emergency Services also responded to the incident. Altogether, Merrill said 20 firefighters were at the scene.

The fire is believed to have originated between the two outbuildings, said Merrill, although exactly how it started is still unknown. He said an investigation has been opened to determine the cause.

“At this point we haven’t ruled out an intentionally set fire or an accidental vanity fire,” he said.

A vanity fire is one that was started by a youth who is overly curious about matches or other fire-starting devices. All investigators know for sure is that the blaze was started by a person, he said.

At 2 p.m., about three hours before the fire, a 911 caller from the 1400 block of NE 11th Avenue reported that her “daughter’s boyfriend threatened to burn down her house.”

Oak Harbor police, who are also investigating the fire, indicated the two incidents don’t appear to be related. Chief Rick Wallace said an officer was sent to the earlier threat and the names from that incident don’t match those associated with the later fire.

“We can’t rule it out yet but I don’t see any connection,” Wallace said. “But it is awful coincidental.”

At this point, he said there has been no determination that a crime has actually occurred, only that the fire is “suspicious” in nature.

However, if it’s later found that the fire was intentionally set, as Geist believes, the person responsible could face charges of reckless burning or arson, both of which can be felonies.

Geist said she has contacted the Oak Harbor police and fire departments about past incidents of harassment and small fires but they haven’t responded, and she’s worried about her kids’ safety.

“I’m scared and can’t get any help from anybody,” she said.

Anyone with information about the fire is urged to call police at 279-4600.

(News-Times editor Jim Larsen contributed to this story.)

 

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