The $1.2-million home is next door to another house torched by an arsonist nearly two years ago.
By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001
BELLEAIR -- A $1.2-million waterfront home was destroyed by fire early Thursday morning, nearly two years to the day after an $800,000 home next door also was flattened by flames.
Both fires were set by arsonists, investigators say. No arrests have been made in either blaze.
In both cases, firefighters encountered problems with low water pressure and were unable to immediately get a strong stream of water on the fire. In both blazes, officials say, the houses were so engulfed with flames that it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference.
Both homes were under construction or renovation and were not inhabited when they burned. No injuries were reported in either blaze.
Investigators declined to say whether they think the same person set both fires.
Firefighters were summoned to 19 Ambleside Drive about 11:55 p.m. Wednesday after someone on Sand Key saw smoke drifting from the 6,000-square-foot home. Firefighters found the house ablaze and tried to hook hoses to a fire hydrant up the street.
But the water pressure was so low that most of the water evaporated before it reached the flames, said Belleair Bluffs Fire Lt. Chuck Barlet.
"We sat there for 10 minutes watching the fire get bigger and bigger and bigger," Barlet said. "And we didn't have any water to do anything about it. What if somebody's trapped inside and we don't have the water to go in?"
Town manager Steve Cottrell said city officials became aware of the water pressure problem after the fire two years ago, and planned to install a larger water line in the neighborhood in the near future. This fire may accelerate that, Cottrell said.
Early Thursday morning, firefighters had to snake nearly a half-mile of hose to a large hydrant on S Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater to get more water pressure, adding about 10 minutes to the response time, Barlet said.
Investigators identified the homeowner as Steve Gurba, who was out of state and could not be reached Thursday.
Arson investigators from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the Clearwater police and fire departments and the State Fire Marshal's Office spent Thursday probing the charred rubble. Two dogs used for arson detection keyed on areas where accelerants were apparently used to start the blaze.
"We do have some leads we're following up," said sheriff's Detective Ken Luth.
He said investigators did not have any suspects they were naming, nor would they say where the fire started in the home.
Renovation of the home began in early March and was set to finish up in about three weeks, said Ken McClain, owner of the general contractor, ASR Construction, in St. Petersburg.
McClain said Gurba has owned the house for about a year. He said the home, which was built in 1964, has four bedrooms and six bathrooms. An insurance adjuster on the scene said the home was insured for $800,000.
Neighbors also were concerned about the second destructive arson fire in two years. Both crimes torched homes at the end of a cul-de-sac. The home that burned two years ago has since been rebuilt.
But that fire burned so hot that it split the foundation, prompting builders to start from scratch. The home, which is owned by Clearwater physicians Joseph and Janet Fishman, was nearly 80 percent complete at the time of that Sept. 1, 1999, blaze.
Mrs. Fishman said she believed the same person was behind both fires. She said investigators also found traces of accelerant in her home when it was torched.
"My guess is he gets his thrills from burning things," she said.
Neighbors also were concerned about the water pressure issue.
That street has one fire hydrant hooked to a six-inch water line that puts out 500 gallons per minute. When multiple fire trucks -- each able to suck 1,000 gallons per minute from a hydrant -- hook up to the hydrant, the line can't feed them all and streams become trickles, said Cottrell, the town manager.
While that scenario isn't a problem with little kitchen fires, it does create a problem with large fires, particularly those fueled by an arsonist, he said.
Cottrell said about $600,000 has been dedicated to water distribution upgrades and improvements in long-term plans. He said the plan was to spend about $100,000 to get a larger line in the area in the next four years.
But he said six-inch lines, which were installed years ago, are the norm across the small town. He said to overhaul the entire town's water system is a huge undertaking that can't be done overnight.
"We have valuable homes all over town and we have six-inch lines all over town," Cottrell said. "The system works to put out most fires. It's not broken, per se. It may appear to be broken in the face of an arson . . . but a city doesn't go out every time there's a fire and say "My God, we need to rebuild our infrastructure.' How much of the town do you want ripped up at once?"