Questions still smolder after apartment fire

Whether building will be repaired or replaced, cause of blaze remain unknown

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

It’s been three months since the worst apartment complex fire in memory ripped through most of a two-story building at the Rolling Creek Apartments in Hazel Dell, making 56 residents of 24 units suddenly homeless.

Now, work to repair or replace the building seems to be proceeding a million times slower than those flames on April 21. But fire marshals hope the building will emerge safer.

The blaze broke out about 2:30 p.m. and hundreds of residents, neighbors and bystanders watched flames leaping from the roof of Building F — for three hours.

They watched the arrival of more than a dozen fire engines, strained their ears to hear what firefighters’ radios were blaring and smelled thick toxic smoke the winds were pushing around everywhere.

It was inside the north half of the building where the flames roared the most savagely and stubbornly. More than 50 firefighters used everything they had, including a close-parked fire engine with a top-mounted water cannon, its stream so strong that it peeled back old layers of wood shingles.

Inside the building, the heat was like an oven on self-clean, devouring the wood framing that supported the roof and walls. The first crews who went inside with hoses realized the structure could fall on them and were ordered to retreat.

Firefighters were called in from as far away as Woodland to relieve tired ones. They surrounded the building with hoses and engines and streamed in water from outside the baking structure, hoping to find or create holes that would allow the water inside.

That slowed the flames little by little, and firefighters also streamed water to make sure the blaze didn’t ignite other apartment buildings, one only about 50 feet away.

It was late that night before the flames and embers had been doused and chopped into soggy, black muck. Officials estimated the damage at more than $1 million.

But no one was reported seriously hurt, and officials said it was lucky the blaze broke out when most folks were awake.

Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway said the old building had no sprinkler system, which likely would have stopped the fire in the room where it started.

And the early-1970s building codes also required no attic fire stops, which are heavy wallboard barriers that separate the attic into compartments. Without the fire stops, flames were free to roam the attic along the building’s entire length and easily set the roof afire.

Work moves slowly

For those who experienced some of that drama, Building F was a strangely quiet place on a visit late last week.

Chris Palacios, 10, wearing swim trunks, emerged from a unit in the building that faces the burned one. He glanced at the burnt areas as he walked to the swimming pool with his towel.

His family lived there during the fire and worried it would spread to their building, he said.

A locked chain-link security fence surrounds the burnt building. Inside a gate, a heavy lumber brace props up the still-unstable north wall.

At least half of the big building’s roof was gone, exposed to the pretty blue sky.

During a late-afternoon visit, no work was being done on the ravaged north-side units, where a “no entry” order had been attached to a door, reading “abate-gut.”

But up a long ramp to the south end, Jacob Dye, 22, who works for PuroClean Portland, was inside the least-damaged units, grabbing pieces of wallboard, breaking them and putting them in a wheelbarrow.

The carpets had been pulled out, the walls and floors were bare and electrical wiring hung from walls. Appliances — including a dishwasher, microwave and TV — had been disconnected, covered with plastic and placed out of workers’ way.

Some of the wallboard, Dye said, had been contaminated by water and smoke in the fire and must be removed and hauled away.

A few other companies including BELFOR, a property restoration business, had posted signs indicating they, too, are involved.

A resident, Jennifer Hubbard said she and her children, ages 3 and 4, moved into a unit facing the burnt building after the fire, and had noticed no problems since then.

Unlike many of the 24 families who had to find new places to live, she said she has renter’s insurance.

Renter’s insurance with a $200 deductible can be purchased for about $125 a year.

Hubbard and other residents had been told the fire was caused by someone who left a blanket on a baseboard heater.

“I check my house when I leave, turn off all the lights and unplug what needs to be unplugged,” Hubbard said. “You wouldn’t catch me leaving a blanket on a heater.”

But Deputy Fire Marshal Ken Hill is not so sure. He has spent 60 or more hours as lead investigator on this fire, including about 40 poking, digging and sifting through the ashes, glop and other debris to learn what caused it.

Hill said the fire is believed to have started accidentally in downstairs Unit F-21, on the north side, and he has focused equally on the baseboard heater, a TV and a light fixture in the hallway.

Hill and experts with CASE Forensics in Portland examined the appliances. Hill said he hopes the building’s insurer will pay for more tests that could cost several thousand dollars.

But that may not happen. If not, the cause will be officially undetermined, Hill said.

Encouragingly, though, Hill said he and inspectors found no indication that the electrical wiring of the building itself was at fault.

An eye toward safety

Much is at stake, Hill said, as Rolling Creek’s owners, managers and insurers negotiate with the Fire Marshal’s Office and building inspectors about what happens next.

Depending on how much is spent on the rebuilding or repairing, and the sheer volume of space involved, Rolling Creek may be required to build up to current code standards, Hill said. That could mean a sprinkler system inside and/or attic fire stops will be required.

Those two major safety improvements “would certainly be a plus,” Hill said.

But decisions like that haven’t been made yet.

Rolling Creek’s senior property manager, Ed Vander Meulen, did not respond to The Columbian’s invitation to comment.

The next step, said Fire Marshal Dunaway, is that Rolling Creek will submit documents about its project plans to county building and fire officials, and negotiations will follow.

So far, Dunaway said, no timeline has been set.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.