Fire hits 7 homes being built
Arson suspected at builder's site in Gilbert

Elias C. Arnold
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Investigators believe arson caused a fire that destroyed four houses under construction and damaged three others early Wednesday in Gilbert.

The Gilbert Fire Department is exploring whether fuels were used to accelerate the fire, said Capt. Rob Duggan, a Fire Department spokesman. Natural and accidental causes have been ruled out.

The fire, in a K. Hovnanian Homes development southwest of the Power and Ray roads intersection, caused an estimated $500,000 in damages. advertisement

The houses were unoccupied, and no one was injured.

"I don't know their reasons for doing it if it was arson, but I'm obviously very disappointed if somebody would do that," said Heather Mecham, who recently bought the house the fire started in and had planned to move in by August.

Fire crews received the call at about 4:30 a.m. after a security guard noticed the fire and called for help, Duggan said.

The fire started in one house, spreading quickly to the others, Duggan said. The homes were engulfed when fire crews arrived, requiring about 45 minutes to extinguish the fire, he said.

By midmorning, a burnt smell hung in the air as firefighters picked through the debris.

Only piles of charred, black rubble and sagging scaffolding were left to mark where four of the houses once stood.

The fire spread quickly because the houses were in the framing stage, a vulnerable point because untreated lumber burns quickly, said Scott Smith, regional president for New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Homes.

Smith said he doubts the blaze was motivated by eco-terrorism and ruled out an insurance scam because the company is responsible for the properties and will have to replace them.

"Even if they were sold, no one had anything to gain or to recover by doing anything because they hadn't actually taken delivery of the houses yet," Smith said.

K. Hovnanian Homes, which is building seven developments around the Valley, has had about four fires in the last 12 years that started under "suspicious" circumstances, Smith said.

"In the environment we operate in, we are not shocked when it happens," he said. "It's an unfortunate hazard, but sometimes there are people out there who like to see homes under construction burn down."

Mecham and her husband, Ryan, will have to delay their plans to move into their first home for several months.

"I've been cursed by the fire gods or something," Heather, 24, said.

The young couple graduated from Brigham Young University in December and will live with Ryan's parents in Mesa until their home is done.

Heather said news of the fire saddened her, but losing a home to fire once before taught her that rebuilding is only a matter of time.

"It doesn't do any good to sit there and be sad about it," she said. "You just kind of move on with life."