Officials: Saturday fire was arson

The massive fire that destroyed a downtown Fort Dodge building Saturday afternoon was arson, according to Fire Chief Kent Hulett.

The investigation into how the fire was set is ongoing.

Investigators from the Fort Dodge Fire Department, State Fire Marshal’s Office, Fort Dodge Police and the State of Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation were on the scene Sunday before 9 a.m.

A trained dog that could smell out any accelerants present in the debris aided in the on-scene investigation, which was a “slow and careful process,” Hulett said.

“It can be time consuming going through the debris, plus (the building) is structurally unsound,” he said. “The problem is it’s so hard to preserve the evidence. So much of it is burned up or buried.”

The fire was reported at about 1:45 p.m. Saturday by a Fort Dodge Police officer.

When fire crews arrived, they saw fire coming from the basement and first floor.

An occupant of the building had left the scene prior to discovery of the fire, according to Hulett.

Firefighters were on the scene until 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

No injuries were reported.

The building is considered a total loss, according to the fire department. First Avenue North and North 11th Street are single-lane only next to the building, as police tape still sections off an area around it.

Fighting a fire this size took a lot of cooperation, according to Hulett.

“We had several retired firefighters out here yesterday helping out,” Hulett said.

They assisted him with keeping track of and coordinating roughly 30 to 35 firefighters.

“Accountability is big when you have six departments,” he said.

Fortunately, he added, the fire happened on a weekend when more volunteer firefighters were available.

The hot conditions Saturday also posed a problem.

“You had all your turnout gear, and about 40 pounds of air packs, and you spend the first half hour running around pulling out ladders and equipment,” he said. “With the heat conditions, we had people here on their knees. It got to me a little bit.”

Local Red Cross volunteers and Trinity Regional Medical Center helped provide drinking water and monitor conditions, Hulett said.

“We wanted to rotate people in and out because of the heat,” he said, “but they didn’t want to stop.”

The structure, located at 1029 First Ave. N., was built in the 1880s. It served as the Bethlehem Lutheran Church beginning in the early 1900s until the Fort Dodge Church of Christ moved into the building in the 1950s.

That Lutheran congregation became Grace Lutheran Church, said Al Nelson, a former church member.

According to Messenger archives, the Church of Christ sold the building to Roger Habhab in 1985.

Habhab’s son Johnny Habhab said the building was owned by his mother, Pam Habhab, and housed Ag Advantage, a magazine and marketing business.

There also appears to be minor damage to two nearby buildings, according to the fire department.

Steve Roe, director of the neighboring Beacon of Hope Men’s Shelter, confirmed Sunday that the shelter had little or no damage, and the residents had been able to move back in. The shelter had been evacuated Saturday, when the men from the shelter were moved to St. Olaf Lutheran Church.