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Teen Charged in Loretto Ave. House Fire

Fair Lawn's fire marshal said last week's house fire on Loretto Avenue resulted from a carelessly discarded cigarette.

A 17-year-old neighbor's carelessly discarded cigarette started  that caused major damage to the rear of the building and displaced its two residents, fire marshal Jay Bender said Monday.

Bender said the individual, whose name was not released because he is a juvenile, inadvertently ignited the blaze by flicking a cigarette butt into the trash area behind the home.

"It wasn’t like he was aiming for it," said Bender, who hopes the incident will serve as a teachable lesson. "He just happened to throw it and it landed right there and ignited a whole bunch of combustible stuff."

charged the teen, who lives nearby, with criminal mischief and failure to report or control a fire, Sgt. Richard Schultz said. It's too early to determine restitution yet, but police said they believed damages would be covered by insurance. 

Bender, who said he wouldn't have been able to determine the fire's direct cause without help from police, suspected it was human-initiated because there were no obvious sources of ignition nearby.

"It wasn’t like there was anything electrical nearby," Bender said. "Somebody had to introduce something, somebody had to bring the heat. I knew somebody, a human being, had to play a role in this."

While questioning neighbors about the fire, Bender said he grew suspicious of inconsistencies in one individual's story. 

"The person was trying to cover up what they did and it just wasn’t adding up the way the story was going down," he said. "For that reason, I got ahold of a detective and said 'You might want to go to work with this person a little more.'"

Police took the case from there, Bender said. Following some questioning, the teen divulged that he tossed a cigarette toward the trash heap, which inadvertently landed in a puddle of gasoline and ignited the blaze immediately, police said.

Frightened, the juvenile fled the scene in search of help, but never alerted authorities that he had, in fact, started the fire, police said. 

Authorities at the scene said one of the renters was in the house watching television and unaware that the back of the house was on fire until a neighbor knocked on the front door to alert her. The other renter was at work and arrived on the scene about a half-hour later. Bender said the neighbor who notified the resident inside the home was not the one who police believe started the fire.

battled the main body of the blaze for about 15 minutes before knocking it down and moving on to chase small pockets of fire until it all had been extinguished. While the rear of the house took serious fire damage and the entire back wall will need to be ripped out and replaced, the front is fine, save for some minor smoke and water damage, Batallion Fire Chief Kirk Wolthouse said at the scene.

Bender said the last he spoke with the home's landlord, neither of its tenants had moved back into the dwelling.

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