Cause of fire at Washington State University's Prosser campus 'undetermined'

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldMarch 15, 2013 

PROSSER -- The cause of the Feb. 27 fire that heavily damaged an Agricultural Research Services building at Washington State University's Prosser campus has been ruled "undetermined."

"It's not suspicious. I simply could not eliminate several possible sources, including a heater they had going in there or the electrical panel," said Benton County Sheriff Detective Larry Smith.

"I've found nothing to indicate it was an arson fire," he said.

The fire caused about $200,000 of damage to the building, which was used as a plant grinding laboratory by the Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit.

Sandy Miller Hays, spokesperson for Agricultural Research Services, said the researchers were working under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"They are the in-house scientists for the USDA," she said. "They would basically take crops from the fields -- potatoes, alfalfa -- and grind the plant samples into a fine powder and then analyze it for various nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, copper, iron and zinc."

The on-site director, Ashok Alva, has applied for money to reconstruct the burned portion of the building -- about one quarter of the structure -- and to restore the rest, which was damaged by smoke and water.

"Dr. Alva has submitted the paperwork for emergency funding to get it repaired. But it's owned by the federal government. He'll have to wait and see if funds are available. He's hopeful, but there's no guarantee," Miller Hays said.

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