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City and federal officials speak with the media on Wednesday. The ATF will assist in investigating a three-alarm fire that leveled part of a San Marcos RV dealership on Oct. 11. Photo by Aaron Burgin
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ATF to assist in San Marcos fire investigation

SAN MARCOS — A team of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been brought in to assist local authorities with the investigation into a three-alarm fire that leveled part of a San Marcos RV dealership on Oct. 11.

The Sunday afternoon fire destroyed the parts and service center, as well as six to eight recreational vehicles, at Holland Motor Homes, which is located near San Marcos Boulevard and state Route 78. The damage was estimated at more than $4 million.

Fire officials said no cause has been determined, and at this time they are not even calling the fire suspicious in nature.

“We come with a blank slate, we make sure we don’t have some preconceived notion about what is going to happen,” said Steven Cordle, the ATF team supervisor.

Cordle said the ATF national team responds to large and small commercial fires, it just depends on if a local agency needs the assistance. Most recently, a national response team assisted Los Angeles Fire Department officials investigating a major apartment complex fire in downtown Los Angeles.

He was a member of the ATF team that responded to the major fertilizer plant explosion in West Texas in 2013.

Local authorities requested assistance from the ATF’s national response team after it was determined the size, scope and complexity of the blaze was too much for local resources.

“It was way beyond our resources,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Hampton of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department’s Bomb Arson Unit. San Marcos Fire Department initially reached out to the eight-investigator sheriff’s unit for assistance.

“If it were just the eight of us working on this fire, we’d be working it until Christmas,” said Hampton, who said he could see the black smoke from Rancho Santa Fe on Sunday, where he was assisting the detail assigned to President Barack Obama during his brief San Diego visit.

San Marcos Fire Chief Brett Van Wey said the city welcomes the assistance from the elite unit, which he said would be critical to determining the cause of the fire.

“We want to get this right,” he said.

On Tuesday, the 18-member ATF response team was combing through the still smoldering debris inside of the shell of the building, searching for potential clues that could lead to the fire’s origin.

Meanwhile, the owners of the motor home company expressed gratitude to the first responders and the cities of Escondido and San Marcos for their swift action in extinguishing the fire, and helping them continue operating in the midst of the wreckage.

The neighboring cities worked to find a suitable temporary site for Holland to operate its service center in Escondido, President Michael Dykstra said. Dykstra said the company was scheduled to sign the lease on Thursday and would be operating out of it.

“It’s a great win for us, because we have 11 guys sitting at home right now, and we are anticipating replacing tools and our equipment and getting up and running without interruption and this has afforded us the ability to do so,” said Hector Wilbur, the company’s vice president.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the blaze, and two suffered minor injuries. City officials said the structure was not equipped with sprinklers, as its 1996 construction date preceded an ordinance that required commercial developments to have internal sprinkler systems.