LINCOLN CITY — With instincts honed by 40 years on the fire line, Frederick “Ed” Ulrich sifts the debris of tragic fires for answers that could prevent the next heartbreaking catastrophe.
“It’s not adequate to find out if it was preventable,” said Ulrich, 63, who left the Kirkland, Wash., fire department to become fire marshal of North Lincoln Fire and Rescue on May 1, 2018. “We have to take steps so that same fate doesn’t befall someone else.”
Ulrich cracked the puzzling case of a July 4, 2019 blaze that destroyed a national institution. The Otis Café, a destination diner hailed by the New York Times for its pies, burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances.
“That was an interesting fire,” recalled Ulrich, who orchestrated the high-profile investigation that included experts from Oregon State Police, Newport Police Department and a private investigator. “Firefighters discovered a door that had been damaged in a way that a fire would not do, giving us reason to believe that a cover-up crime might have been committed.”
Working like a detective, Ulrich threw a wide net that recovered nearby security video along with evidence from the fire, which erupted two-and-a-half hours after the café closed. Eventually, Ulrich determined it was a “well-intentioned bystander” who broke down the door in a futile effort to stop the fire.
Eliminating arson, Ulrich turned to science for the astonishing solution: “spontaneous combustion.” The idea is enough to raise the eyebrows of skeptics unschooled in the chemistry of exothermic chemical reactions, one of the fields of study for licensed fire investigators.
Ulrich found that a bucket of oily paper towels, warmed by the machinery of a nearby refrigerator and fed oxygen by an overhead fan, caught fire in a rare process that makes perfect sense to the trained eye.
“The chemistry of mineral and vegetable oils combines with the fibers of other materials in a chemical degradation that produces heat,” Ulrich explained, saying the rags should have been stored in an airtight metal container. “It was a process the restaurant had used for years, and that day all the bad circumstances came together in spontaneous combustion.”
Solving fires is just one aspect of Ulrich’s work. Preventing them is another, as Ulrich spends much of his time pouring over building plans and responding to complaints about fire hazards and reports of code violations.
“It is a law enforcement role of sorts, but I try to approach it as an educational opportunity,” said Ulrich, whose ready smile and upbeat manner are valuable assets in a job where victims are heartbroken, suspects are slippery and business owners are often wary. “When I have a chance to meet property owners and managers, I explain I’m there to help them prevent some sort of fire tragedy. It doesn’t take much of a fire to put someone out of business for months at a time.”
One major problem he has uncovered in a district with hundreds of hotels and rental properties is the rapid degradation of fire alarms in coastal weather conditions.
“The ocean air is very corrosive on alarms and pull stations,” Ulrich observed. “More often than not, when we respond to an automatic fire alarm, some are ringing and others are silent. It does no good for the occupant to pull an alarm that’s not making noise.”
While the law allows for Ulrich to close an establishment over fire code violations, Ulrich favors a slightly smaller stick. On several occasions, he has ordered innkeepers to post a human “fire watch” at the building until faults are corrected.
“One of the most powerful tools I can impose is the ‘fire watch,’” Ulrich said. “That person’s exclusive duty is to walk around the property, 24/7, and make sure there is no fire. It can cost several hundred dollars a day. It’s a real incentive to fix the problem.”
Ulrich grew up in the southern California desert town of Barstow before joining the U.S. Air Force. After his honorable discharge, he moved in with his parents, who had moved to Washington.
“My parents couldn’t stand me hanging around the house and drawing unemployment,” he reflected. “They kept throwing the paper at me and telling me to get a job. I saw an ad for a firefighter in Kirkland, and thought, heck, I’ve watched a few episodes of ‘Emergency.’”
Competing against 400 applicants, Ulrich made the remarkable cut and became a fulltime firefighter for the next 33 years until he was promoted to investigator.
“I really enjoy this job,” said Ulrich, whose wife of 20 years, Marlea, is a McMinnville native who sold him on the idea of applying for the job in her favorite childhood vacation town. “I might not stop a fire today, but sometime in the next 10, 20 or 50 years, the work I did could save the life of an occupant or a firefighter.”