Trailblazer calls it a career
by Tammy Sakry
For nearly 25 years, Denise DeMars has crawled around in burned-out buildings looking for the cause of fires.
In October, the deputy state fire marshal of Sherburne, Anoka and Isanti counties brushed herself off one last time and retired from a job she has had since 1988.
While the Andover resident will miss all of the people she has worked with over the years, there are things she will not miss, like scraping the ice off her truck in the early morning hours, DeMars said.
Before joining the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the 1974 Columbia Heights High School graduate worked as a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy.
She was also a volunteer firefighter with the Columbia Heights Fire Department (CHFD).
When an opening came up in 1980 for a full-time firefighter, DeMars did not think twice about applying.
DeMars was hired by the fire department and became the first Minnesota female firefighter.
As a firefighter, DeMars worked closely with the state fire marshal when he came to investigate fires in her department’s service area.
“I would follow him around” during the investigations, asking questions and learning, DeMars said.
She also started doing fire investigation training.
“It was something that really intrigued me,” she said.
In 1988, an opening came up in the State Fire Marshal’s Office in the Twin Cities metro area and DeMars applied.
“I was able to hit the ground running” because it was the same type of investigations she was doing for the CHFD, DeMars said.
Although DeMars was a woman working in a male-dominated field, “I was accepted from the first day,” she said.
Her first day as a deputy state fire marshal was supposed to be spent meeting the boss and dealing with paperwork, but a fire call came in around noon.
As the state fire marshal accompanying her got out of the truck, he called over to the Norwood-Young America firefighter waiting for them.
When the state fire marshal introduced her, the man held up a finger and told them to wait.
“I was thinking ‘great, he doesn’t like me already,’” said DeMars.
The man came back after grabbing a camera from the truck and snapped a picture of DeMars, who was wearing a skirt and heels.
The photo was posted in the fire hall with a sign introducing the new state fire marshal and it hung there for years, she said.
“He was very proud to have a lady state fire marshal,” DeMars said.
The challenges of the job came from the people involved in the fires.
“There were bad guys who are arsonists, people who lie to you because you don’t deserve the truth, children who light fires, people who die in fires and the people who survive are the victims,” DeMars said.
When investigating each fire case, DeMars was careful to cover all the bases and possible causes.
“You have to do a thorough job and that can be challenging because fire scenes can get mucky, hot, cold, … dirty and (all you) want to do is go home,” she said.
All of the physical and mental work involved in the investigation can be tiring, DeMars said.
If there is a death, the state fire marshal processes the fire scene, removes the body and follows it through the autopsy process, she said.
She did her best to honor the person who died and treat with the person with importance and respect, DeMars said.
In 2002, DeMars was part of the team that investigated a van fire that killed three young children in Blaine.
A 1994 Chevrolet Astro van was carrying day-care children when a fuel leak caused it to catch fire.
The driver escaped and rescued one of the children, but three children were killed.
Thinking about it still makes her teary eyed for so many reasons, said DeMars.
It is always worse when children die in fires, but the fire also got many people working together, from those who stopped and tried to save the children and were burned in the process to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which kept its forensic scientists there around the clock to make sure they could identify the children by their DNA, she said.
“The whole thing tore everyone’s heart up and nobody will get over it. It was heartbreaking,” she said.
DeMars also saw miraculous and startling sights.
The miraculous happened at a house explosion in a southern Minnesota rural farmhouse that had been reduced to match sticks by a propane gas leak.
Neighbors found an 80-year-old woman sitting on what was left of her stoop, DeMars said.
When asked if she was OK, the woman said, “Of course, I’m OK. I am Norwegian. Had I been Swede I would have been a goner,” DeMars recalled.
The woman did not have a scratch on her, she said.
Of course, some fires yield startling finds.
DeMars had entered a burned-out building to investigate and when she lifted a piece of board, she was greeted by a grinning alligator, dead of course, looking back at her from the ruins of an exotic pet store.
As a deputy state fire marshal, DeMars also helped start the Anoka County Fire Investigation Team in 2004.
DeMars teamed up with Jerry Streich, who is now the Centennial fire chief, to design and organize the team along Andover Fire Chief Dan Winkle.
The idea started when Streich and DeMars were working in Hennepin County.
When both of them ended up in Anoka County, the idea resurfaced to draw together fire, police, legal and other specialists to investigate fires from start to finish, DeMars said.
The idea really just blossomed under Streich’s encouragement and has grown to 30 members, she said.
DeMars lets people, including him, shadow her as she investigates a fire scene, Streich said.
She is very knowledgeable in her field and willing to teach, he said.
During her career, DeMars became the head trainer for the State Fire Marshal’s Office and also teamed up to do training for other agencies, Streich said.
“I was the state training coordinator for fire investigation,” DeMars said. “I produced the programs and conducted most of the training, and the State Fire Marshal’s Office has trained a little over a thousand fire investigators (both police and fire) in the last 12 years or so.”
DeMars said she has no set plans for her retirement.
“I have a lot of hobbies and activities I like to do, like riding my bike,” she said.
DeMars carves cottonwood bark and sculpts bonsai trees and is active with Epiphany Catholic Church.
“I have plenty of people to visit,” she said.
DeMars is also getting a lot of job offers for consulting and investigating work.
“I’m not looking for a job,” she said. “I worked very hard for the last 30 years and now I am interested in enjoying all the things life has to offer.”
But she will miss all of the really nice people she has worked with and her really great bosses, DeMars said.