Some Madison homeowners paying for damage caused by nearby apartment fire

The Madison Fire Department is hoping someone will come forward to help solve one of the biggest fires in recent history.

The fire at 502 Apollo Way last August burned an under-construction apartment complex, causing up to $10 million in damage.

Fourteen neighboring homes also suffered heat damage, but due to the lack of a definitive cause, they have had to pay their own deductibles to cover their own fixes.

Shannon Dentice was out for a run on Aug. 8 at 7:30 p.m. when she saw a “gigantic fireball in the sky.” By the time she made it back to her home just off Apollo Way, she said “It was so hot, we thought we could roast marshmallows basically off our porch.”

She paid a $1,000 deductible to replace the siding on her home, some of which she said was “just hanging off the house. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

When she contacted her insurance company, she was told even though there is no dispute the fire started at the apartment complex, because no cause had been specified by the fire department, there was no legal liability for the property owner, the developer or any of the subcontractors working on the site at the time it caught fire.

“Because the cause of the fire was unknown, they didn’t feel like there was anything they could do to help,” she said. “A thousand dollars might not seem like much to [the owner or developer], but for people that are middle-class citizens that have to work hard, a thousand dollars is a lot. That’s a couple months of groceries. That’s a house payment. It means a lot.”

Madison fire investigators estimate they spent more than 1,800 hours working on the case, including a week’s worth of digging through 4 feet of ash in some cases. They ruled out electrical issues, but could not rule out either arson or discarded smoking materials.

“We feel like we did everything we could do at that time and I think it’s going to come down to someone sharing some information in the future that perhaps will lead to a determination of the cause of the fire,” said Madison Fire Capt. Todd Steyer, who ran the investigation.

Steyer said he commiserates with the homeowners who are out their deductible. Division Chief Mike Dibble, who runs the department’s investigative unit and who was the incident commander that night in August, also sympathizes and said in his 32 years with the department, the idea that an insurance company would not cover claims for homeowners’ damages by a fire is unique.

“I’ve never heard of that, but I’m not in the insurance business,” he said. “Until you’ve got it 100 percent nailed down, that you can prove without a doubt in a court of law, it just becomes undetermined. So, that’s very frustrating when you have 98 percent of the parts together, but you just don’t have that 2 percent and then, you can’t determine that cause.”

Society Insurance covered the developer, Forward Management, and one of the sub-contractors at the Apollo Way site. A spokesman said his company also wants to find out a cause as it’s out more than $100,000 in claims.

“I get the frustration when we can’t determine a cause, I understand where (the neighbors) are coming from because we spent money to determine the cause,” said William Bunzel, vice president of Property, Auto and Liability Claims with Society Insurance in Fond du Lac. “We’re just as eager to get our money back from someone.”

Bunzel said everyone involved in the project had both first-party coverage and liability coverage. The first-party coverage basically paid for each entity’s losses, but the lack of a cause means the lack of anyone being found liable.

“If it came out any of our contractors were legally liable, we were prepared to pay out claims,” Bunzel said. “But we don’t know what caused this fire.”

A spokeswoman for QBE North America, which represents Apolloway LLC, the owner of the property, sent News 3 an email which read, “The company’s policy is not to provide comments to the media regarding insurance claims that have been filed with the company.”

The apartment complex is once again under construction with an opening date set for later this year. Its slogan to potential renters is “Designed to Impress.” The impression it’s left on its neighbors is not particularly positive right now.

“Someone got paid on the deal, but it definitely wasn’t anyone in this neighborhood,” said Cory Neeley, whose home suffered bubbling of its siding over his garage. “All that matters to me is the fire started on their property and it damaged all these houses in the neighborhood, you know that’s all that really matters.

“They’re almost done fixing the damage to their property, but none of the people in our neighborhood have been made whole,” he said. “They seem more than happy to not pay out.”