Cadet gets a baptism by fire when first call truly hits home

24 apartments empty after Thursday blaze

By Bob Albrecht, Columbian Staff Reporter

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It’s unlikely many firefighters forget their first fire call. That’s especially true for Twristin Waite.

When her engine set out Thursday from Clark County Fire District 6’s Hazel Dell station, the 17-year-old cadet knew exactly where it was headed: Her family’s home.

“It made me nervous,” the Hudson’s Bay High School student said of the ride to Rolling Creek Apartments, 7301 N.E. 13th Ave. “I didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”

Waite and other firefighters arrived to find the north end of Building F engulfed in flame. Her family’s apartment, F-10, which was on the opposite end of the building, appeared safe until the fire spread through a common attic connecting all the units. Then it looked to be in jeopardy.

So Waite, who would have simply observed had the blaze not taxed District 6’s firefighters, did what few other residents could: She rolled out hoses, readied water supplies and tried to stay informed about what the fire was doing. She worked.

“For her to be able to keep her focus, to me that says a lot about her professionalism,” said Capt. Eric Simukka, an instructor for the cadets program. “I don’t know if I could have done it.”

Twenty of 24 apartments in Building F of the complex were damaged or destroyed, and all were uninhabitable. The apartment where Waite lived with her dad, Terry Waite, and older sister, Haylea Close, was one of the four damaged by smoke but untouched by flame.

It appeared, said Dawn Johnson, the department’s spokeswoman, that the entire building, one of six in the complex, might have to be demolished and rebuilt.

“I was happy that it didn’t reach ours,” Waite said. “At the same time, we need to start looking for a place to stay.”

She said the family spent Thursday night with her dad’s girlfriend. Asked on Friday at the fire station how her family was doing, she responded, “We should be fine.”

As Waite returned to cadet training at 12:30 p.m. — as she does every school day — investigators from the Clark County Fire Marshal’s office went back to work, too. They sifted through the charred building to determine what set it ablaze.

The fire started in a bedroom of a ground-floor unit in the middle of the wood-frame building and quickly spread via the attic. Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway said it could take several days to determine the exact cause of the fire.

“There are no indications that it’s anything other than accidental at this point,” he said.

When the first crews from Fire District 6 and the Vancouver Fire Department grew fatigued, engine crews from as far away as Ridgefield, Battle Ground and Woodland were called on to supply fresh firefighters.

In all, 56 people were displaced by one of the largest local fires in recent memory. Four tenants spent the night in a Red Cross shelter at a local church, and 52, including Waite’s family, found lodging with friends or family, or in motels.

Cat found alive

Firefighters remained on the scene through much of the night, watching over hot spots.

Shawn Richey, a firefighter/EMT, had been on scene 13 hours when, sometime after 3 a.m., his unit was finishing up with a “pesky hot spot” inside one of the apartments.

“As we were walking out the door, we heard, ‘Meow, meow, meow,’” Richey said Friday.

He dug through a futon and found the small black-and-gray cat hiding underneath the cushions. The cat had a singed tail, had burns on its face and paw, and had suffered smoke inhalation.

Richey said that when he picked it up the cat was shaking but didn’t struggle.

Outside, Richey took off his shirt and wrapped it around the cat. A pediatric oxygen mask was used to give the cat fresh air.

“A family lost their home,” Richey said, “so that’s awesome we could give that back to them.”

The cat was taken by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to St. Francis Animal Hospital, where it was determined to be in stable condition. It was later released to the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

Friday evening, the male tabby was faring well, save for singed whiskers and fur and face and paw injuries, Humane Society officials said. A veterinarian reported that the kitty’s lungs were in good shape. The cat is getting topical and pain medications.

If anyone from Thursday’s fire is missing a cat that matches the description, contact the Humane Society at 360-693-4746. And do it quickly or you might have to fend off Richey.

“I’m a dog guy,” he said, “but I’m definitely warming up to cats.”

Committed to career

It took hours to fully douse the apartment complex Thursday and will take far darker, damper days to deter Waite from her chosen career. She said experience responding to a few in-home disasters made her want to become a firefighter.

“My sister’s not a very good cook,” Waite said. “She tends to burn stuff.”

Through the Clark County Skills Center, Waite is spending a year at the fire station learning the trade and earning college credits.

“It’s still what I want to do,” she said. “Go to college and become an EMT.”

Reporter Laura McVicker contributed to this story.