Investigators: Dementia sufferer may have caused double-fatal Pilot Hill fire

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Evidence points toward the possibility that an occupant suffering from dementia may have unwittingly caused a Pilot Hill house fire that killed the 65-year-old woman and her husband. 

While El Dorado County Fire District investigators aren’t completely certain, Battalion Chief Mike Pott said that two possible scenarios have emerged in a fire that has been pinpointed to have ignited in the kitchen.

The Nov. 18 fire in the 4500-block of Salmon Falls Road, just off Highway 49 east of Auburn, spread quickly through the one-story, 111-year-old building.

Killed in the fire were husband and wife John Steven “Steve” Cook, 67, and 65-year-old Steve Etta “Stevie” Stephens. Family members said that “Stevie” Stephens suffered from dementia and was barely able to walk. Her husband was caring for her in the home, which had been in the family since it was built around the turn of the 19th century.

Battalion Chief Mike Pott said faulty wiring or other electrical problems in the house had been ruled out as a cause. And there was nothing to indicate that it was a criminally set fire.

“There are a couple of different plausible causes,” Pott said.

One possible cause focuses on flammable cushions on kitchen chairs in the Stephens house.

“She had a history of pushing things around in rooms and one might have been moved against a heater,” Pott said.

Stephens had also been seen close to the time of the fire with a cigarette lighter, Pott said.

“In her diminished mental capacity, she may have lit something unintentionally,” Pott said. “Investigators did see a piece of a lighter in the kitchen.”

While investigators have theorized that either of those two scenarios could have been the cause, it isn’t a certainty, Pott added.

A caretaker told investigators after the fire that smoke alarms were installed in the house and working, Pott added. That would have meant that neither of the Stephens were able to evacuate the home on their own in time, he said.

The house was engulfed in flames when the first fire engine arrived. A neighbor had tried to enter the house, but smoke and flames held him back. Firefighters determined the fire was too intense to start their own rescue effort and the fire was knocked down about 30 minutes after arrival.

A neighbor, Bob Laliberte, said he watched the house burn like a “giant torch,” with flames 100 feet in the air.

Pott said that with new state laws in effect this year, no home should be without strategically placed smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to prevent similar tragedies to the one that occurred Nov. 18 in Pilot Hill.