DeMars ends career on high note in Elk River

Click here to read more about Denise DeMars.

by Jim Boyle

State Fire Marshal Denise DeMars’ career ended on a high note in Elk River with the successful investigation of an arson case at 421 Rush St.

Two individuals have been charged in the Sept. 6 fire, and charges against a third individual are still possible.

“That was my last fire as a state fire investigator and we were successful in getting arson charges on at least two of the arsonists!” DeMars exclaimed in an email to the Star News.

Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham told the Star News DeMars will be missed. He called her skilled, personable and a friend. What made her good is she understood what it meant to be a firefighter, because she was one, Cunningham said.

Submitted photos
Denise DeMars confers with a fire chief and two others at a fire in Litchfield.

She was also determined.

“Being an arson investigator is very difficult,” Cunningham said. “You often have very little to work with because of what the fire has destroyed. She was always very methodical and determined to always get to a cause. It wasn’t adequate to say a fire was undetermined.”

Cunningham worked with DeMars on the Rush Avenue fire and the Saxon Motors fire, both of which were deemed arson. He said he appreciated the fact that she would come out to fires at all hours of the night and she wasn’t afraid to get dirty.

“Even though she was a state employee, she worked with us,” he said. “She was a partner. She worked well with fire and law enforcement.”

The fact that she was a woman made no difference to Cunningham.

Digging through the rubble, Denise DeMars looks for clues.

“She was an investigator and a firefighter,” he said. “She was there looking out for us and helping us out just as were there to help her out. It’s tough to see her go.”

Cunningham admits firefighting remains a male-dominated job across the county, but says anyone can do this job if they have the determination and willpower to do it. He says it comes down to personal commitment to a community, to each other on the department and to the individual person who will make a successful firefighter.

Denise had that.

“It doesn’t matter the person’s background, whether they are male, female, white, black,” Cunningham said. “It’s whether they are committed to the job. At the end of the day, we all put the same gear on and have the same job to do. Knowing that you have someone by your side that is looking out for your best interest and vice versa, that’s what the job is about.”

DeMars said she considers herself lucky to have been a firefighter and fire investigator. She came across a lot of great people and great stories. There were also the weird and awful cases, too.

One of the worst for her happened in the Elk River area when a young girl perished in a vehicle fire.

“I’m still haunted by that,” she said. “I wish I had never gotten that phone call. You can’t ‘unring’ that bell, though. That’s a wound that will never close.”

Suicides, which comprise about 10 percent of fire fatalities, are another sad reality of the job.

DeMars’ favorite memories, however, are the stories of survival. One in particular that happened just outside of Elk River was an explosion she heard from her home in Andover about 12 miles away from the scene.

“The guy didn’t get hurt,” she recalled. “The whole thing was matchsticks, and yet there he is walking around. I’m lucky I got to see stuff like that.”

Burning highlights from Elk River area:

•Sept. 6, 2012: Denise DeMars investigates her last fire at the home of 421 Rush Ave. She deemed it to be arson, and worked with Elk River police to bring charges against two individuals and possibly a third individual.

•Investigated the Saxon Auto World fire, which she later deemed to be arson. No one was ever caught in this case.

•March 4, 2009: Vern Ohman’s workshop and garage exploded with him in it. It was a spectacular explosion that turned the shop into kindling, damaged two other buildings and was heard 12 miles away.

Ohman walked away from it because he was at the center of the explosion and it all blew outward from him.

•March 21, 2008: A fire occurred in the locker room of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Department. It looked very suspicious from the start. She later determined the fire occurred when some loose lithium batteries from a flashlight jumbled together and created enough heat to ignite the box they were in.

•Sept. 20, 2008: A fire at Lions Park Apartments at 1001 School St. in Elk River displaced dozens of people and burned the roof off of the building. “It was quite dramatic,” DeMars recalled. It was determined that the fire began in the apartment building’s attic space, where sprinklers are not required.