Investigators searching for possible victims in the abandoned single-story house at 29 Shearer Drive in Atherton that was destroyed in an April 1 fire found no human remains.
The 3,000-square-foot house had had its utilities shut off, raising questions about how the fire might have started. Because the house had a basement, firefighters considered the possibility that someone, perhaps a transient, had been camped in there, said Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
The district employed a dog and handler trained in finding human remains -- a duo that's part of the district's Urban Search and Rescue Team.
After the basement was pumped clear of the 4 to 5 feet of water that had collected there, the dog found no indications of a human victim, the chief said.
"Our official determination at this point is that we are calling this a 'suspicious' fire," the chief said. "We are familiar with this location, we've had a fire in this vacant home before, there is no power to this building and we will be working closely with the Atherton Police Department to investigate this incident. Vacant structures with no working utilities don't just catch themselves on fire."
Firefighters turned control of the site over to the Atherton Police Department. The town's Public Works Department fenced the site and had red-tagged it for demolition within 24 hours, the chief said.
Basement a risk
Firefighters arrived at the house shortly before 5 a.m. on April 1 and found it engulfed in flames, the chief said. With 16 firefighters from the Menlo Park district and the Redwood City Fire Department fighting the blaze, it was extinguished by around 9:45 a.m, the chief said.
On the scene were four fire engines and a ladder truck, along with the battalion commander's vehicle. One engine company stayed behind for the rest of the day to watch for re-ignition and to work with the fire investigator and Atherton police, the chief said.
Knowing about that basement and the potential for the first floor to collapse under the weight of a person led the battalion commander to the decision to fight the fire from outside the building, the chief said.