Footage shows how, where Oakland Hills Country Club fire likely started

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A Feb. 17 fire that destroyed the clubhouse at the historic Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township initially appears accidental and possibly started by contract workers using a propane torch on an outdoor patio, authorities said Thursday.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, township Fire Chief John LeRoy and Fire Marshal Peter Vlahos met with reporters Thursday and played surveillance video recovered in the water and rubble of the blaze.

"There is still a lot of investigation and interviews to do," LeRoy said. "But this gives us a good idea where this started and went up the wall."

Bouchard and others emphasized the findings were “not conclusive,” and the sheriff's fire investigation unit will also work with the township fire department to determine or exclude other factors in the fire, which did an estimated $80 million in damage.

"We will be meeting with club officials and insurance companies at the end of this month to discuss preliminary findings," Bouchard said. "But the total investigation could take a year."

The video, shared with reporters, possibly provides one eyewitness view of what started the fire. It shows a crew with a propane torch working on a cement juncture and sided wall adjoining the patio on the east side of the clubhouse. The project, which had been going on for several days, was part of an effort to winterize and seal the area.

The video shows workers with a torch and an operating space heater apparently noticing something occurring under the wall’s siding, even lying down on the concrete for closer inspection. In subsequent footage, a worker can be seen dragging a garden hose across the patio and attempting to spray water into the area of concern.

Later video shows arriving township firefighters swinging axes into the siding, a burst of flame and smoke billowing out.

Officials said the video footage is not time-stamped, and they could not say how much time elapsed between the activities and the arrival of the fire department.

No one was injured in the blaze discovered shortly after 9 a.m. Feb. 17 when a pastry chef working out of a basement kitchen noticed smoke coming out of a vent and reported a possible fire, evacuating the clubhouse. The kitchen is directly below the area where work was being done.

“It does not appear at this time there was any deliberate intent (to start this fire)," said Bouchard, who added that no one has been charged with any criminal offense.

LeRoy said there was nothing improper about the work being done — installation of rubberized flashing — and no blame has been placed on any specific person. All have, or will be interviewed.

The fire was not reported by the work crew, officials said Thursday. The Detroit News has reported how the propane torch, heater and other equipment were recovered later that night from the fire scene and has been held as part of the investigation.

The 99-year-old clubhouse was one of the oldest all-wooden structures in Michigan, Bouchard said. It has hosted several national and international golf tournaments over the past century, and players and guests have included celebrities and even presidents.

Firefighters and club members were able to remove several historical photos, paintings and trophies from the building during the fire. Club officials have vowed to rebuild the structure.

The building’s fire suppression system is of interest to investigators who want to know if it ever activated and why it didn’t put the fire out.

The attic area also remains an area of interest for investigators because the spreading fire seemed to rapidly burn through the roof.

Fire inspection reports are being reviewed for possible insight into other factors. The building was so old it may have had newspaper stuffed into the wall for insulation, officials said, which once ignited would have shot up the wall “like a chimney.”

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