ATF trying to determine cause of Ferndale boat factory fire

Federal investigators had their first chance to delve into the wreckage of a devastating fire at a Ferndale boat factory Tuesday, Sept. 16.

The fire last week destroyed the main warehouse of Northwest Marine, a sport boat manufacturer at 5375 Labounty Drive.

Since then agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have taken the lead on the investigation because the agency has the resources and expertise in fiery hazardous materials.

“There are ways to look for the origin, whether there’s spalling on the concrete, or if there’s a clean burn, sometimes you’ll see a full V-shape, and it’s really clear,” said Brian Bennett, an ATF special agent.

But until now fire investigators hadn’t been cleared to comb through the charred remains of the building’s interior, due to leaning concrete walls and deadly chemicals in the air.

Over the weekend metal rolling doors were cut open to slowly air out the 11,420-square-foot warehouse. A local contractor mounted support beams into the main back wall of the warehouse to make sure it held steady. In the meantime, police and agents interviewed about 40 witnesses and employees.

On Tuesday ATF agents in gas masks and powder blue hardhats washed their boots at a decontamination station, before and after entering the building. They found the intensity of the flames destroyed some evidence that could prove to be crucial, like wiring and insulation. Several potential accelerants scattered throughout the warehouse could complicate the search for a point of origin and a cause, Bennett said.

Otherwise, little about investigators’ findings has been made public. It could take months before a cause is determined. Federal agents expect to wrap up their on-scene work by the end of the week.

Ferndale police and Whatcom County fire officials were overwhelmed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 fire, in part because of the explosive hazardous materials — like acetone and methyl ethyl ketone peroxide — that needed to be safely removed from the building.

Since Friday local authorities have been working with more than 40 agents and experts from ATF’s Seattle branch; ATF’s National Response Team; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and the U.S. Army National Guard’s 10th Civil Support Team, which specializes in hazmat responses and chemical weapons of mass destruction. So federal dollars have covered much of the mounting cost of cleanup and investigation.

“For a small police department, with one detective, or for the two investigators at the (county) fire marshal’s office, it’s a huge relief,” Bennett said.

Northwest Marine employed about 20 people. One of those employees walked to the scene Tuesday to go over the layout of the assembly line with investigators.

The business was owned by Ron Wright, his son and his son-in-law — a family with six decades of history building boats in Whatcom County. Northwest Marine opened shop at the Labounty warehouse three years ago, and workers there crafted about three boats per month, before the fire.