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Cause of Beale AFB fire still unknown

Nearly three weeks after a fire ravaged a building housing civil engineering and other functions at Beale Air Force Base, investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the blaze.

According to an email from base spokesman Capt. Brian Wagner, an investigative team of officials from inside and outside the base began having a portion of the roof removed this week to get a better look at the building's southeast corner, where the fire is believed to have started.

Though there was only one minor injury in the Jan. 21 blaze, the two-story, 38,000-square-foot building was consumed by the fire, which burned for more than a day and caused more than $10 million damage.

Wagner said the team, which arrived in late January, might take up to a month or more to determine the fire's cause.

But in the meantime, base officials are also continuing to monitor the site of the fire for runoff and potential contaminants, Wagner said.

"This fire on base is very similar to any off-base fire, where you have debris from the structure and the runoff water entering water systems," Wagner said in the email. "Most fires (structure or grass/forest) cause some type of minor water effects because the soot and ash from burned structures and the runoff water contains burned debris."

Base officials have tested samples from waterways where runoff from the fire might have gone, and so far found results within water quality benchmark standards on all but two of 176 samples taken from six places.

Wagner said base personnel informed several environmental agencies, including Yuba County Environmental Health, of the fire, some of which have also been monitoring the runoff. The base's total cost for sampling and monitoring is about $9,000, he said.

And as investigation and monitoring continues, members of the base's liaison committee are turning their efforts toward getting money to rebuild.

Janice Nall, a committee member and Yuba City resident, said her group will make a trip to Washington, DC, in April to press Congress for construction dollars.

"The CE building is critical to the operation of Beale," she said. "We're cautiously optimistic the Air Force will see it as a necessity."

US Rep. John Garamendi, who said after seeing the damage last month that he would work to get money for rebuilding, said the base first has to submit an invoice, similar to an insurance claim, within 30 days of the fire.

There is no timeline for how soon federal officials have to respond, he said

Timing important to get rebuilding funds

Timing for getting money to rebuild the damaged civil engineering building at Beale Air Force Base may be critical, depending on how close the decision is to March 1.

The date is when sequestration, a wide swath of federal budget cuts, is set to take effect, including on the US military.

US Rep. John Garamendi said while there is a congressional effort to come up with a plan to avoid sequestration, the military branches are already preparing as if it'll happen.

"The military is sweeping every closet and figuring out where the money has to go," Garamendi said.

Though he said he is hopeful unspent money elsewhere could be funneled to Beale's rebuilding, it's not clear if there will be such a thing as unspent money if sequestration goes into effect.

Janice Nall, a Yuba City resident and member of Beale's liaison committee, said she is also concerned, because the base faces other budget cuts if sequestration goes through.

After the fire broke out Jan. 21, the base had a 30-day window to submit an application for rebuilding money to describe the toll, impact, how the base is coping and other details.

Garamendi said he expects the base to take close to the 30 days, which would mean the report could be submitted around Feb. 21, about a week before sequestration would happen.

In such a small window, he said, there is reason for concern.

"We ought to be very thoughtful about this," he said.
 

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