Eagle Harbor fires under state probe

Community pontoon goes up in flames

By Tracy Spengler
Clay County Line correspondent

The sky over Doctors Lake filled with smoke before dawn Wednesday as the Eagle Harbor community pontoon boat, a 30-foot vessel valued at $35,000, went up in flames in a fire that officials are labeling as suspicious.

The fire marks the sixth blaze set in the 2,000-home community in two weeks. Five fires were set Jan. 22, including two in Dumpsters (one at the front swim park and one at Fleming Island Elementary), a half-acre brush fire in Forest Park, a maintenance building fire (which was put out by an Eagle Harbor employee) and one in a maintenance truck in the golf club parking lot.

"So far, all of these fires have been set to property," Eagle Harbor project manager Roger Arrowsmith said in a news conference Wednesday morning after the charred remains of the pontoon boat were pulled from the Lakeshore dock. "This is a tight community, and we have the potential here for real damage. I am greatly concerned. However, I am also relieved that the things destroyed are physical things and that nobody has been hurt."

Officials estimate that the blaze, which was set to the vessel as it sat moored at the Eagle Harbor dock, was set about 4:30 a.m.

"We can't be sure of exactly when it was set," said Clay County Sheriff's Office Investigations Detective Robby Stephens. "But it had been burning for about an hour before firefighters arrived at the scene; it was a total loss."

Stephens would not speculate if the fires were connected. "At this point, while it is suspicious, we don't have physical evidence to link this fire to last week's fires."

David Cheers, an investigator with the state fire marshal's office, said a link between the fires will be considered.

"Considering that the blaze was set at about the same time in the morning as last week's fires, we're certainly not ruling out the possibility that all of these fires are related," Cheers said. "We simply have to wait for official results from the state fire marshal office and labs to know the accelerant, ignition source, etc."

The boat, a "TriToon", has belonged to Eagle Harbor for two years. Arrowsmith said it had two 30-gallon gasoline tanks, which he believed to be full.

"The last time it was taken out was Dec. 26 or 27, to see the Christmas lights," Arrowsmith said.

Total damage to the master planned community is between $50,000 and $65,000.

"The boat loss itself is $35,000," said Mary Justino, public information officer for the sheriff's office. "That's not to mention the $6,000 in damage done to the dock. Last week's truck fire was a total loss with $25,000 in damage."

The Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention is offering a $2,500 reward for any information leading to an arrest. Anyone with information are asked to call 1-877-NO-ARSON (662-7766). Callers can remain anonymous. Eagle Harbor posted a $1,000 reward as well Thursday.

Additional police coverage will be stepped up. Off-duty police officers already patrol the neighborhood on a regular basis, Justino said.

Arrowsmith assured Eagle Harbor residents that the boat would be replaced in time for the warm weather.

"We've already talked about it," Arrowsmith said. "And in true Eagle Harbor fashion, things will be better than they were. We're even talking about having two smaller boats, since the old one had become so popular."