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Fire that destroyed Atwater businesses and buildings is ruled arson

Rubble and charred beams are piled outside a block of buildings on Atlantic Avenue in Atwater that were destroyed by a devastating fire. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

ATWATER -- Arson is the cause of a February fire that gutted three commercial buildings in the heart of downtown Atwater.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in St. Paul announced Monday that the investigation revealed that the fire had been intentionally set.

A reward of up to $5,000 is being offered for information that could lead to the arrest of the person or persons responsible.

"We encourage any citizen that believes they may have seen something about the fire, or heard something, to come forward," said Special Agent Robert Schmidt, in a brief interview.

The Feb. 28 fire caused an estimated $2 million loss, according to the ATF.

Because only one of the four destroyed businesses has resumed operation so far, the loss to the community could be far-reaching.

The fire was reported around 12:43 a.m. at Phat Pheasant Pasta and Brew located on Atlantic Avenue.

The fire quickly spread to two adjacent buildings -- Holm Brothers Plumbing and Heating, which also housed the business Stickerboy Signs & Designs, and Peterson Hardware.

None of the businesses were open on that Sunday -- the day before the early morning fire was reported.

The Atwater Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene and subsequently suppressed the large structure fire.

ATF, Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division, Atwater Police Department and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office conducted a fire scene examination and determined the fire was deliberately set.

"Arson is a complicated investigation to work and there are many factors that go into working one of these," said Schmidt, explaining why it took nearly a month to determine arson was involved.

He said people needed to be interviewed and lab evidence and forensic examinations needed to be reviewed.

Investigators are seeking the public's help in solving this crime and are hopeful that the reward will provide additional leads in this investigation.

Schmidt said citizens "may have a tidbit of information they might not think is pertinent" but could be the "piece of the puzzle" to lead to an arrest.

He said posting a reward usually does generate some calls.

Anyone having information about the arson should call the following 24-hour anonymous hotline:

ATF Fire Hotline: 888-ATF-FIRE or 888-283-3473.

Callers may also provide information anonymously by contacting the following offices: ATF-St. Paul IV Field Office at 651-726-0260; Fire Marshal's Arson Reward Project at 800-723-2020; or Willmar Crime Stoppers at 320-235-3640.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750