Multiple potential ignition sources equals 'undetermined' fire


    I frequently see in stories about structure fires that the cause is often listed as “undetermined,” even after an investigation. Why does this happen so often?

    — Curious, Medford

    Fire investigators are often able to trace a fire to where it started. The “how” of the equation is where it can get complicated. And that’s because there can be multiple possibilities.

    “It has to be definitive in order for us to declare the cause,” said Medford Emergency Manager Melissa Cano.

    Let’s take the Cedar Tree Apartments fire, which happened in early November. That fire, which resulted in the death of a 5-year-old girl, had multiple possible ignition sources, including a cigarette and an unattended candle. The cause remains undetermined.

    “Although they can narrow it down to the location of where the origin is, there might be two to three to five potential fire starters in that given area,” Cano said. “And in the case of Cedar Tree, if the fire burned as hot as it did, it can even destroy some evidence.”

    The occupant of the apartment where the fire started, 51-year-old Tonya Kaylee Johnson, remains in the hospital.

    “So we have no one to interview. She’s still in the hospital and not awake,” Cano said. “If she never wakes up, it might remain undetermined. Because they can’t pinpoint it to the exact thing that caused the fire.”

    Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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