A fire near Delano Bay on June 28 destroyed a truck used by a local businessman to haul and sell hay. Weeks of active investigation into the fire are complicated by inconclusive evidence. The fire, which broke out while the truck was parked overnight, was categorized as suspicious.
Property owner Sharon Moore was awakened by her blind Australian shepherd, Aussie, about 2 a.m. “My blind dog woke me up or the whole damn place would have burned down,” Moore said. “He may not be able to see but he can smell and hear. As soon as I raised out of bed, I could see the hay load on fire but I couldn’t see the truck.”
Moore made her first of two 911 calls immediately. She says that by the time the fire trucks arrived, it was too hot to get close to the truck. According to Moore, the loss included 35 tons of hay, two trailers, four elevators, three outbuildings and a 1999 Kenworth truck. “Nothing left except the smoke stack and part of the grill,” she said.
In a press release, Fire District 16 Division Chief Guy Allen wrote, “With concern for the power lines down in the driveway, firefighters used the deck gun on the fire engine to initially knock down the flames. As more firefighters arrived, hand lines were set up around the structures and the hay trailers to contain the fire. The estimated dollar loss is roughly $120,000, including the truck and trailers, hay and the two buildings.”
According to Allen, the truck owner, Joe Leitz, informed firefighters he had about 200 gallons of diesel in his fuel tanks because he had filled them the night before. The hazmat response unit of NRC-Environmental Services was hired to clean up the diesel spill.
The fire is under investigation by county fire marshals, insurance and law enforcement officials. Investigators have labeled the fire as suspicious but they disagree about its origin. Some evidence supports that the fire started in the engine of the truck, and other evidence finds that the fire started at the rear of the hay load.
Pierce County Deputy Fire Marshall Mike Patti has been at the front of the active investigation. “There are a lot of things I need to rule out,” Patti said. “I’m leaning toward a faulty electrical system based on the burn patterns, either a battery or electrical system problem.” At press time, a report was expected in a few days, but the case remains open pending additional information.
“I’m calling it electrical,” Patti says. “The insurance company was calling it arson. My finding is the one that counts. I have the final say. If they want to call it arson, then the proof is on them.”
While the investigation is ongoing, the costs to rebuild the hay business have fallen on Leitz. According to Moore, Leitz immediately began working on an older truck to get it road worthy and ready for a haul to Yakima for hay loads. “I put a motor in Old Blue a couple of years ago and parked her for a spare,” Leitz said. On his first trip to Yakima after the fire, “she did have a little breakdown,” he said, “but stayed up and going.” He brought back 25 tons of hay and was ready to sell on July 14 at his usual corner in the O’Callahan’s parking lot in Key Center.
Leitz is a second-generation hay business owner. His father originated Leitz Livestock “east of the mountains” in the ’40s. They trucked hay to the dairies on the west side from Sequim to the Key Peninsula. Leitz kept the company name, though he’s locally known to some people as “the Hay Guy.”
About four years ago, he moved to the Key Peninsula. “I was just down here looking for a change away from Yakima. I drove down here one day, brought in a load of hay downtown and sold it,” he said. “I started talking to Sharon, who introduced herself; and then I knew who she was.” Moore’s stepfather and Leitz’s father were both in the hay business and were good friends. The rest is history, as the saying goes. Leitz rented Moore’s barn and began parking his trucks on the Delano Road property, returning it to a hay business enterprise.
“I love it here on the Key Peninsula,” Leitz said. “There isn’t a better place in the world to live. So many good people. People I don’t even know, and my customers, stop by and want to know if I need anything. I had one guy offer to punch a driveway for me up his road and let me park my trucks up there. Greg (Calahan), the bar owner, he’s the best and that’s the kind of people we need out here.”
Undaunted by the destruction of her outbuildings and by the inconveniences caused by the fire that took out the electricity and waterline to her house, Moore said they plan to rebuild.
“We are here to stay,” Leitz said. “It’s gonna be a good summer, I think; unless something else happens… It’s hard to put somebody down when they’re tough.”