By Adrian Stewart
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Professor Charles Lowe, recently retired from the UA Ecology and Environmental Biology Department, returned to his home of three decades Sunday to find it almost completely destroyed.
Pima County fire investigators reported yesterday that the house's 40-year-old electric water heater had ignited its wooden cabinet and started the blaze.
The cabinet had dried over time, lowering its ignition temperature until it ignited.
The fire warped an antique, Pee Wee Herman-style Schwinn bicycle and melted off the tires.
The force of the heat smashed the library windows.
In the bedroom, the fire burned the Yaqui Indian, hand-hewn ceiling beams into blackened and broken sticks.
It was just Friday that Lowe moved many of his personal papers and records out of storage to the house.
The library, holding his 50-year collection of books, was not touched by fire. The books were mildly smoke-damaged, fire investigators said, and must be chemically treated to prevent further decay.
The site of the $150,000 home is in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson. It is located outside the city limits, without nearby fire hydrants.
Katy Hiden, of the Northwest Fire District, said that fire engines were forced to shuttle water from a source more than two miles away.
"Over half of the Northwest Fire District does not have fire hydrants," Hiden said.
Firefighters were hampered further by spectators who had parked their cars on the narrow, dirt road leading to Lowe's house.
Less than 24 hours later, Lowe had cleared a spot in the living room and had started to clean up.
An undamaged scale-model of a Gila monster sat on the porch, alluding to Lowe's study of the lizards of the Southwest, including the Whiptail lizard and the venomous Beaded lizard.
Lowe, who once wrote, "Mine is the story of a naturalist," has studied the biology of the Southwest on a scale both large and small. He has also studied the amphibians and reptiles of the region, most recently the "troubled life and times of the Desert tortoise."
Lowe stopped teaching ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona just last semester.
Original reports stated that the fire had a chemical source within the home, but further investigation proved that untrue.
Fire investigators reported that only household chemicals like "Ajax" have been detected in the remains of the house. Also, there were no chemicals near the electric water heater.
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