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Cause Of Four-Alarm Townhouse Fire Could Remain ‘Undetermined’

Officials say the fire originated outside the building on West Street, but they don’t know how it started.

The cause of that took about 100 firefighters nearly two hours to extinguish Thursday, leaving three units of a six-unit townhouse complex on West Street badly damaged, was still “undetermined” Monday, officials said.

“It definitely started outside of the building, underneath the rear deck, but we don’t have an actual cause of origin,” said fire official Steven Curry. “We don’t have the actual ignition source.”

Curry said local fire officials met with insurance investigators Monday at the site of the fire at 494 West St. after and county arson investigators, along with the Fort Lee Fire Prevention Bureau, had “a little difficulty coming up with the exact cause” by Monday morning.

“We feel that it was most likely an exterior fire that communicated to the inside of the building,” Curry said Monday morning before that meeting. “We want to make sure [the insurance investigators] concur with us.”

Later in the day Curry told Patch they had, but that little else was known.

“We’re still looking at an exterior fire, but right now it’s going down as undetermined,” Curry said. “[That assessment] could still change. It’s unlikely, but it could.”

The most likely cause of an exterior fire starting under a deck would be a cigarette, Curry said. The problem for investigators was that nobody they interviewed admitted to smoking.

“It wasn’t easy because everybody interviewed, including the landscapers that left three hours before the fire, supposedly nobody smokes,” Curry said. “If we had a smoker, I would say that would a good bet that it was a discarded cigarette.”

Fort Lee Chief Keith Sabatino told Patch Monday that a propane tank that exploded on the deck where the fire is believed to have started made the task of determining cause more complicated.

“When the propane tank blew, it destroyed everything in the back area where the fire originated,” Sabatino said, going on to describe the extent of the damage to the six-unit complex.

“Two of [the units] were very badly damaged,” he said of what he previously described as an “aggressive” fire, but one in which no one was injured. “The first two units were burned; the third one was damaged because we had to go in there and just open stuff up to make sure that the fire didn’t spread into it.”

Sabatino added, “We put the fire out, and then turned it over to [investigators].”

Meanwhile, Curry said that while half the families temporarily displaced by the fire had already moved back in, it could be several days before the remaining residents are able to do the same.

“Three of the families were let back in on Friday evening—the furthest three units to the east,” Curry said. “The other three sustained too much fire and structural damage. We’re waiting for structural engineers’ reports on the other three. I would say it would probably take the better part of this week.”

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