Vancouver fire victims' troubles mount

Arnada neighborhood apartment where blaze broke out burglarized later the same day

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

Published:

 
photoJames Smith Jr., 13, loads cleaned items into a family van Thursday. The family is moving to an apartment near Clark College after a fire damaged the Arnada Neighborhood apartment it was living in on Tuesday.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

This wasn't James Smith's week. The same day a laundry room fire left the Vancouver man's apartment uninhabitable, someone broke into and ransacked the apartment before stealing several personal items.

Smith said the burglar or burglars took jewelry, his grandfather's watch, a checkbook, memory from a computer and $625 in cash Smith had saved for rent.

"That day I left (because of the fire), I was so frazzled, I managed to get my billfold but not my checkbook," Smith said.

"It's pretty sad," his son Bryan, 9, said of the fire.

"It's even more sad that someone would come in and steal my ring and my dad's stuff," son James Jr., 13, added.

White squares dotted the smoke-stained walls of their Arnada neighborhood apartment on Thursday. Items were scattered around the floor as Smith and his two sons worked to wipe soot from framed artwork and photos that once hung in those spots. The three spent the day sifting through items to find out what they could and couldn't keep. Many of their belongings needed to be thrown away, but the irreplaceable artwork can be salvaged.

"My kids are my life. Their artwork is precious," Smith said while cleaning a framed pencil sketch of dinosaurs that Bryan drew earlier this year.

Smith was taking a shower on Tuesday morning when his smoke alarm started ringing. He found himself stuck in the bathroom as a fire burned just outside the door. After Smith spent a few minutes leaning out the window, Jesse Avery, an off-duty firefighter, propped a ladder against the Smiths' window and helped him get to safety.

Firefighters put out the fire within minutes.

Vancouver fire Capt. Dave James said the fire was caused by excessive lint in the dryer vent. The blaze caused an estimated $8,000 in damage to the apartment, he said.

Acidic smoke will ruin clothes and electronics, James said. Usually, a restoration company will get involved to make repairs and clean items.

"Even on small fires, you often have a way bigger bill than you're expecting just because of that," he said.

Smith, who didn't have renter's insurance and is unemployed, said he doesn't have the money to get a lot of his items repaired. His sons also have asthma, so he's planning to get rid of the family couch, beds and clothing so they don't get sick from the smoke-soaked fabrics.

It wasn't all bad luck.

The Smiths' were reunited with the family cat, Chocolate, who escaped the apartment during the fire. Someone found it in a nearby garage, Smith said.

The Red Cross helped the family pay for a hotel room to stay in and provided a prepaid credit card to cover the cost of buying a few new clothes and food.

"I would have been devastated that night," Smith said. "If everybody left and there wasn't a Red Cross, we wouldn't know what to do."

Kelly Anderson, emergency services director with the American Red Cross of Southwest Washington, said her organization's immediate goal is to help find shelter, food and clothing needs for disaster victims. After that, they try to help them get their lives back in order, she said.

Smith said the organization worked with his landlord to find a temporary place to live: a one-bedroom apartment near Clark College.

Smith is making a few changes: His new place near Clark College is on the first floor and he now has renter's insurance, he said.

He is relying on his faith in God and newfound faith in the community, he said.

"There's a bigger plan for us here," he said. "We have to embrace it."