Cause of fatal Lake Samish fire still unknown

A fatal house fire last week south of Bellingham likely had been burning for hours before neighbors noticed, according to fire investigators.

Someone first noticed smoke coming from the home — tucked a few hundred feet back in the woods, south of Lake Samish — around 7:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 24, about a quarter-hour before sunrise. By the time the first fire engines reached the scene 11 minutes later, the flames seemed to have already passed their peak, said Mitch Nolze, an investigator with the Whatcom County Fire Marshal’s Office.

Walls of the home, at 135 Summerland Road, had collapsed, and the flames still burned too intensely for firefighters to look for anyone inside. Twenty-seven firefighters from five fire districts battled for about an hour to get the flames under control.

That morning, they recovered human remains believed to be resident Bruce W. Harris, 75, from inside the two-story house. He hasn’t been identified for certain, due to the condition of the body.

Since last week authorities have struggled to piece together the cause of the fire and what killed Harris. More tests are needed to confirm whether Harris died from smoke inhalation, said Dr. Gary Goldfogel, the county medical examiner.

The fire’s point of origin was likely somewhere near the middle of the house, generally near where the body was found, Nolze said. Though Harris smoked, a smoldering cigarette remains only one of myriad possibilities for the fire’s cause. Harris built the home without regard for building codes, and the fire damage, Nolze said, made it nearly impossible to even tell what each room was used for. The home’s electricity was working last Friday.

So far there has been no evidence of foul play.

“We didn’t see anything that was outrageous,” Nolze said. “Unless we can come up with a specific ignition source, we can’t say we know the cause.”

The house had been built on about four acres of wooded property. Investigators believe it could have been burning for “two or three hours,” in the dark, before people started calling 911 at dawn.