As state investigators returned to a fire-ravaged Woodstock building Thursday, their specially trained arson dog led them to what appears to be a likely starting point for a "suspicious" blaze that destroyed a family home, pizza restaurant and part of the Vermont Standard newspaper office.
The dog, Guava, alerted investigators to the presence of accelerants in a portion of the Pi Brick Oven Trattoria that contained an unused wooden bar and was being used to store tables and chairs, said Det. Sgt. Todd Ambroz, a Vermont State Police fire investigator.
Ambroz gestured through a doorway to a spot marked with a tag. The wooden floor beneath that tag had completely burned away, despite the fact that it was protected for at least part of the fire by a metal cabinet that had fallen on top of it.
"When we pulled that up," he said, gesturing to the cabinet, now standing upright and reflecting sunlight in the otherwise blackened interior, "The floor was gone."
That destruction, combined with the comparatively less severe damage to other parts of the floor and Guava's detection of accelerants led him to think that the fire — which caused $1 million in damage and was labeled "suspicious" by Woodstock Fire Chief David Green — may have begun in that spot early Monday morning.
"It's sure looking that way," he told DailyUV.com. The space is in the corner of the Central Street building nearest to High Street, toward the back wall of the room.
Guava the arson dog stands near the spot where investigators think Monday's fire began inside the Pi Brick Oven Trattoria.
The fire began about 3:30 a.m. Monday in a wooden building housing the pizza place, a family's apartment and offices of the Vermont Standard weekly newspaper. The tenants escaped unharmed.
It quickly grew into an inferno, repelling firefighters who tried to attack the blaze from inside and threatening an adjoining stone structure containing the rest of the newspaper offices and a gallery, Collective — The Art of Craft.
Woodstock and about 15 other Upper Valley departments responded to the fire, which burned stubbornly through a series of roofs and into the afternoon. When arson investigators arrived Monday, they feared the structure was so unstable that they didn't want to risk sending Guava inside to smell for accelerants, possible evidence of a fire intentionally set.
So they salvaged what they could inside and brought it to the street beside the building, where the dog alerted them to likely accelerants in a handful of items, which were sent to a lab for analysis. Investigators returned to the structure Thursday and, confident that it would hold, brought the dog inside.
As Guava moved through the charred structure, she sat a number of times in a portion of the restaurant that contained an unused bar and had been used for storage. State Police Det. Sgt. Steve Otis, her handler, said, "Every time she sits, she's spotted an accelerant."
State Police Det. Sgt. Todd Amboz stands near where Monday's fire may have started inside Pi Brick Oven Trattoria.
The dog is trained to sniff out more than a dozen items that could start a fire, including gasoline, lighter fluid, mineral spirits, even grain alcohol, Otis said. More common types of liquor, those served at a bar, could conceivably start a fire, he said — but investigators don't believe any of those were present in this area.
Nor did the blaze start in the area where pizza and other food was being made, he said. "It was definitely not the kitchen."
On Tuesday, investigators harvested more materials from the spots identified by Guava to send off for lab analysis, which takes about two weeks, Ambroz said. Then they took a hose and began washing down parts of the floor to look for burn patterns, a potential road map to how the fire spread.
"When you look at a fire scene, it is a very rapid archeological dig," explained Ambroz. "You always have to go in and let the facts speak to you."
"Let the fire tell the story."
Email the reporter: jeffgoodUV@gmail.com.