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Investigators probe cause of deadly Sylmar fire that killed family

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Investigators say they still don't know the cause of a deadly fire that ripped through a converted barn in Sylmar on Monday, killing a family of four.

Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigator Robert McLoud said authorities have ruled out all appliances in the home as possible sources for the fire.

“At this point, we’re still looking at all the utilities that were connected and looking at different avenues of how it may have started,” McLoud told The Times. 

Investigators believe the fire started in the home's living-dining area, adjacent to where a 12-year-old girl was sleeping.

“We’re definitely placing the fire on the first floor of the structure,” he said. 

McLoud said canine units deployed to the scene Monday did not find any evidence of accelerants. 

The fire spread quickly and became “concentrated” on the second story of the building, which was not used as living space, said McLoud. Smoke and flames alerted witnesses, who called 911.

Firefighters were called at about 4:30 a.m. Monday to the metal-clad building, which is one of two homes on the 2-acre lot.

They kicked down the door of the two-story structure and pulled out four family members, said fire Capt. Jaime E. Moore.

The father, 41-year-old Uriel Estrada, was found a few feet from the front door. His wife, Maria Estrada, 40, and two children, 12-year-old Isabel and 7-year-old Alejandro, were huddled together nearby.

All four were unresponsive, and were pronounced dead after being taken to hospitals.

Moore said there were no smoke detectors installed inside the structure, a claim that property owner Leonarda G. Aguilar has disputed.

Brian Weinberger, an attorney for Aguilar, told The Times on Monday that she had provided smoke detectors at the residence “all along” and that new smoke detector units “were provided” when the family moved in about six weeks ago.

McLoud, the arson investigator, said a sweep of the burned out remains did not yield any smoke detectors, and that no mounting brackets consistent with installed devices were found.

Moore said investigators are continuing to work with the city’s building and safety department to determine if other code violations may have occurred at the home.

If arson and homicide investigators can build a case, Moore said, it will be presented to the district attorney’s office for possible criminal charges.

City records indicate that the owner was authorized to convert the barn into living space. However, the property’s permits do not allow for it to include a kitchen or be used as permanent residential housing for longer than 30 days, said Luke Zamperini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

According to descriptions by fire officials, the home included a kitchen area with a stove, refrigerator, and sink.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Weinberger said that his client has been fully cooperative and allowed relatives of the Estradas onto the property to retrieve the family’s belongings.

He also reiterated a claim that Aguilar did not make any “substantial changes or do any construction” on the property after purchasing ti.

“If there was a kitchen there, then it was there on the property when they purchased it.”

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Twitter: @cmaiduc

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

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