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Our view: Traphagen House is not the only suspicious fire

(Paul Zanetti / Cagle Cartoons)

The fire erupted in the dead of night. In an empty building. And caused tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage with each charring lick of flame that ate away at its target: one of Duluth’s most historic and best-known brownstone mansions.

It came as little surprise then that the early-morning blaze at 1511 E. Superior St. — the opulent, ornate, landmark home of renowned architect Oliver Traphagen and, later, lawyer, capitalist and political giant Chester Congdon, who lived there with his family while Glensheen was being constructed — is being treated as suspicious and is being investigated as arson. Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl confirmed that for the News Tribune Opinion page yesterday, hours before the determination was announced publicly.

All of Duluth can hope the Traphagen House, a fixture of Duluth’s skyline since 1892, will be repaired and restored to its original condition. Its loss would be unthinkable.

But the Traphagen House fire is far from the only suspicious blaze this year in and near Duluth. There have been damaging fires in other empty buildings. And during the dead of other nights.

According to News Tribune reports, at least nine fires resulted in investigations in and around Duluth in 2014. Six of them were garage fires. Four of them happened late at night or early in the morning, just like the fire at the Traphagen House. And all nine of the burning structures were empty, again, just like at the Traphagen House. Suspicious fires this year have caused an estimated nearly $1 million in damage.

But are the fires related? Or are any similarities just coincidental?

“It’s too early to tell,” Grondahl said. “(Monday’s fire at the Traphagen House) isn’t connected to those others at first glance. But we really can’t release too much information right now. It’s basically a police investigation at this point.”

The Traphagen House fire almost certainly will be connected to an apparent attempted arson also early Monday and right across the street. A beer bottle filled with gasoline and with a rag stuffed into it was found in the basement at 1512 E. Superior St., the offices for Real Living Messina and Associates. The Molotov cocktail, after being thrown through a low window, thankfully failed to ignite.

“I can’t fathom why somebody would do this,” Frank Messina, owner of Real Living Messina & Associates, told a News Tribune reporter. “How somebody can be that malicious to destroy somebody else’s property.”

Such criminal activity is hard to fathom.

“People do different stupid things,” Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm said in an interview with the Opinion page yesterday. “Some are businesses. Some are kids goofing around. Some people use fire as a weapon. ... We haven’t seen any specific trend this year (and) nothing has been brought to my attention about an unusual number of arsons.”

That may be so, but even one suspected arson is one too many. Each is an attack and an affront not only on its target but on our community as a whole. Each of the violent acts of destruction leaves a scar in its place that darkens our city’s reputation, its image and Duluthians’ feelings of safety.

There’s no denying the number of suspicious, under-investigation fires this year, each one another unwelcome reminder of the need for all of us to be diligent about watching for suspicious activity in our neighborhoods, to keep our outdoor lights on and to watch out for the safety of our neighbors.

Every act of arson is a violent act of cowardice that demands to be treated as unacceptable. That’s true whether the target is a garage or a landmark historic mansion.

Know anything?

The Duluth Fire and Police departments are looking for information about the early-Monday arson fire at the Traphagen House. Rewards are being offered. Call (800) 723-2020. Or call Duluth Police officer Gregg McCullough at 730-5472.