FRESNO, Calif.—It may have been an act of revenge. Or simply some nut with a book of matches out for a very-late-night stroll. Or it could have been a firebug who liked to see flames and fire and hear sirens. There's plenty of speculation as to why two neighboring Fresno auto service outlets, including a tire store, and a nearby house were torched within a few days of each other.
But one thing is certain: A suspected arsonist may have wiped out one business and extensively damaged Tire Country USA Inc., but it only took the dealership half a day to bounce back and reopen amid charred timbers, destroyed vehicles and melted equipment. A bit worse for wear, but unbowed.
It didn't take long either for investigators from the Fresno Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to conclude that an arsonist was at work on Oct. 3 at Tire Country USA, said co-owner Rick Carothers. He and his partner, Tom Carlson, have operated the company for 26 years. However, it is not yet certain whether that blaze is related to the other two.
Responding to a middle-of-the-night alarm, Mr. Carothers arrived at Tire Country to find firefighters on the scene and the dealership's 10,000-sq.-ft., 12-bay building ablaze.
Someone had entered a fenced-in area and initially set fire to a couple of cars owned by customers. Investigators speculate an accellerant may also have been used to spread the fire inside the outlet, since there were two or three points of origin for the blaze, Mr. Carothers was told by the ATF.
Before a conclusion is reached, print-outs from motion detectors and fire alarms, as well as materials inside the shop, are being analyzed.
The tire shop sustained extensive damage, Mr. Carothers said. Among the equipment destroyed were two tire balancers, a brake lathe, an air-conditioning service machine, a hoist and two lifts—one with a vehicle on it.
The destruction also extended to tools belonging to the dealership and its three mechanics.
Tire Country's entire inventory was lost, including all tires, which he said were deemed unusable because of the heat.
``They're going to have to take the roof off and completely rebuild the shop,'' Mr. Carothers said.
While a final damage total is forthcoming, he predicted it ``will have to be at least a quarter-million dollars.''
Despite the heavy losses, halfway through the day after the fire Tire Country was back in action.
"We were powered up in our office, we borrowed a tire balancer from a supplier, had a portable compressor going and started mounting and repairing some tires," he said. ``We just swept out enough debris to find a place to work and were open for business—working around piles of burned materials.''
``We've been hurt—but we started out working on floor jacks, and we're going to make it,'' he said.
Three days after the fire, he told Tire Business the store already had been visited by contractors, building inspectors and insurance adjustors.
He was unsure why anyone would torch Tire Country and the auto sales and service shop next door, which was burned to the ground the night of Sept. 30. Losses for that business were estimated at $600,000, and Mr. Carothers said investigators have closed off the site for at least 30 days while they probe that fire.
``We don't believe this was an act of revenge,'' he said. ``We haven't had a disgruntled customer in quite some time—and you're going to get those when you're in business.''
He recalled that 19 years ago a guy threatened to burn his store down if "I didn't repair a tire he bought the day before which got a nail in it.
``But I don't think he remembered us.''
The fire has put a crimp in the style of Tire Country, which already had been experiencing a ``lean'' year despite being in a high-traffic area, sandwiched among at least a dozen car dealerships within walking distance.
"We have a lot of competition—people who'll do it cheaper down the street, " he said.
The company's sales are evenly split between tires and auto service work, which includes everything except heavy-duty mechanical repairs, though Mr. Carothers noted: "I really think our future lies in the mechanical repair business because you can't make a living on the low profit margins on tires.''