Damaged Rolling Creek complex will get safety upgrades

It suffered largest apartment fire in memory in Clark County

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Folks who move into Building F at the Rolling Creek Apartments in Hazel Dell soon will be safer than they would have been seven months ago, when a raging fire devastated the north half of the building.

On that afternoon, 50 firefighters from several departments, with a dozen fire engines and other rigs, worked as stubborn large orange flames burned out the roof and devoured the beams that held the building together.

It took firefighters three hours to bring the blaze under control. No one was injured, thanks to the timing of the fire that broke out in the afternoon, when most residents were awake or out of the house.

It was the largest apartment fire in memory in Clark County.

The damage was so great that 56 men, women and children who had lived in 24 apartments suddenly had to grab their belongings that weren’t destroyed and find new places to live.

It took several months for the building’s owners and managers to decide such key matters as whether to demolish the building and rebuild it, or have major repairs done.

In the days after the fire, Deputy Fire Marshal Ken Hill, along with Assistant Fire Marshal Richard Martin, sifted through the stinking layers of debris and muck to learn how and where the fire started.

They then turned their attention to safety improvements they could require.

Last week, Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway and Martin said those issues recently had been decided in negotiations between fire marshals, building inspectors and the management.

Rolling Creek’s managers “are stepping up and doing the right thing,” Dunaway said.

The company chose to repair, which is ongoing, and three important fire-safety upgrades will be installed:

• Heavy wallboard fire stops will be installed floor to roof, designed to prevent a fire in one section of the building from spreading to another.

In the April fire, flames were able to reach the old two-story building’s attic and blast through it. That destabilized the building’s structure and gave the flames a heyday on the roof.

In addition, since the building was too unstable for firefighters to enter or work on the roof, firefighters were limited to sending heavy streams

of water from outside, all around the structure. That’s why it took them three hours to control the flames, three hours during which more and more damage was happening in the beyond-ovenlike interior.

Workers also will seal any openings in the fire stops with a kind of caulking that will expand and prevent flames from sneaking past. The old fire stops had openings where flames could get through into other sections of the attic, fire officials said.

• Much better smoke alarms also will be installed than those required in the 1970s, when the building was built.

The smoke detectors will be added to each sleeping area and the hallway outside. Unlike the common battery-powered ones, these will be hard-wired into the entire building’s electrical system, with backup battery power.

If one goes off, they all go off, alerting folks in the entire building.

• Workers also will add common pull-stations outside. If someone notices a fire and pulls the lever, it will sound for the entire building, including inside each apartment.

Dunaway said he has authority under the law to require all three of the safety improvements, “and the apartment owners see the benefit.”

If the owners had decided to demolish the entire building and build a new one, Dunaway said he could have required sprinkler systems in each apartment, now including exterior patios and balconies.

“It would be today’s code, top to bottom, left to right,” Dunaway said.

‘Much safer’

Even though Rolling Creek owners chose repairing instead of rebuilding, “it will be much safer than it was,” Dunaway said.

A few months after the Rolling Creek fire, Martin said, a similar fire broke out behind a television around a power strip at Discovery Park Apartments, also in Hazel Dell.

Discovery Park has inside sprinklers, and one detected and doused the fire before firefighters arrived. Damage was minimal.

Firefighters put a little more water in the area and vacuumed it up. Discovery Park managers had the room repainted and its carpet replaced.

Without the sprinkler, Martin said, “I believe it probably would have affected six units.”

As for the Rolling Creek accidental fire’s cause, fire marshals have narrowed it to a bedroom near a baseboard heater. Some electrical cords are suspected, including one to a television and another to a hallway light switch.

Rolling Creek’s insurance company decided against paying for additional testing of those wires. As a result, the exact cause is officially undetermined, fire marshals said.

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