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News / Northwest

It killed two people and left survivors devastated. What caused Lakewood brush fire?

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune
Published: August 13, 2023, 6:02am

TACOMA — When Michael Fletcher left for work Friday, his adult stepson was playing video games inside the mobile home the men shared at Lakewood’s Jamestown Estates. By the time Fletcher returned, his house was damaged and nine of his neighbors homes were reduced to little more than twisted metal.

Most alarming, his stepson was missing.

Now, Fletcher believes his stepson is one of the two men who died in the fire that swept through the 40-home park. He thinks his stepson went to an older neighbor’s home to assist him during the fire.

Fletcher’s girlfriend — the stepson’s mother — died from cancer in 2022, he said. The News Tribune is not naming the stepson until an official identification has been made. Fletcher said he’s arranged for his stepson’s dental records to be sent to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“He was cool, he was quiet, he kept to himself,” Fletcher said Wednesday outside his home as the smell of burned plastic and wood hung in the air. Nearby, the singed pages of a Bible fluttered in the wind. Fletcher’s garbage bin had melted to the point where its contents were visible.

His stepson has autism and the mental capability of a 12- to 15-year-old, he said. Fletcher and his girlfriend told the stepson if the power was ever to go out, he was to go to his 70-year-old neighbor’s home. He thinks that’s what happened Friday.

“And I’m sure he could feel the heat at that point because his room is close to the front of my house,” Fletcher said. “Whatever it was, he just got up, walked out, left his computer still in the ‘on’ position.”

When Fletcher, a former manager of the park, arrived at the scene about 6:30 p.m., he frantically searched for his stepson until he learned that two men died in his neighbor’s home. When he got a hold of the older man’s son who was at work in Thurston County, he knew his stepson was the other victim.

Since then, he’s been dealing with the emotional and financial aftermath. He said he couldn’t get insurance for his circa 1968 home.

Brush fire’s cause

Both fire officials and the Lakewood Police Department are investigating, and no cause has been determined, said West Pierce Fire & Rescue spokesperson Jenny Weekes and police spokesperson Sgt. Charles Porche. Several people reported a man leaving the nearly 5-acre overgrown lot where the fire began just seconds before flames erupted, but authorities said that information has yet to be verified.

One person who saw the potential suspect is John McLaughlin, a resident of Jamestown Estates, who was waiting to catch a bus to work when the fire began. His wife Stephanie had just texted him that she was returning home and could give him a ride instead. McLaughlin waved the bus on.

“As the bus went by, the guy walks out of the field,” McLaughlin said. “And he walks right by me, looks me in the eye. And that’s when I heard the crackle.”

McLaughlin called 911.

Porche said that if a person deliberately started the fire, they could be held responsible for the deaths and damages.

A timeline of destruction

On Monday, West Pierce Fire & Rescue Chief Jim Sharp delivered a report to the Lakewood City Council during its regularly scheduled meeting.

At 2:09 p.m. Friday, a West Pierce engine was dispatched to a report of a small grass fire at 146th Street and Murray Road SW.

More personnel and equipment, including a medic unit, soon were added to the call due to hot and windy conditions, Sharp said.

At 2:18 p.m., the first fire crews arrived and found a 50-by-100 foot fire that was threatening structures. Winds were blowing at eight miles per hour.

Soon, flames were reaching 20-feet-long and creating an imminent threat to Brookridge Apartments, just to the west, Sharp said. Another engine company was added along with a ladder truck.

An engine was sent to the mobile home park.

“The fire continued to grow rapidly at this time,” Sharp said.

Initially, firefighters attacked the south flank of the fire but winds soon shifted toward the east and pushed the fire toward Jamestown.

“Firefighters began evacuating mobile homes while working to slow the fire,” Sharp said.

After five minutes on scene, a fire chief upgraded the response to a first-alarm residential fire. That added even more equipment and personnel. More resources were sent to Jamestown as the first two homes caught fire. Power lines were arching and falling to the ground, Sharp said.

About 11 minutes after arriving, the battalion chief requested a second alarm, which threw nearly all of West Pierce’s resources at the fire along with fire crews from Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue. Three of West Pierce’s stations were covered by crews from Tacoma Fire, Central Pierce and Gig Harbor fire departments.

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The fire was brought under control in two and a half hours with over 60 firefighters on scene. Only later were the two victims found.

Fighting the flames

After McLaughlin ran home, flames were above his house, which sits directly adjacent to the field. He immediately grabbed a hose to spray down his home of 20 years. Soon, he hopped over a wooden fence that cordons off his backyard from the field and began spraying the fire. His wife urged him to return.

“When I hop over and I look, the fire hits my fence,” McLaughlin said. “I hear it hit and I feel it. I saw it move.”

On Wednesday, a patch of unburned grass directly next to his fence was evidence how the flames leaped into the air and hit the homes. McLaughlin’s next-door neighbor, who only had a chain-link fence protecting his property, had his home torn open by the flames.

McLaughlin threw rocks at his neighbor’s home to alert him. He and others alerted other neighbors, but it was too late for the two men who died.

Evidence of the fire’s capricious nature were everywhere Wednesday. A pot of slightly singed purple petunias sat next to the remains of one home. A child’s tricycle rested in blackened debris, its tires burned off.

Community and government support

Support, both personal and civic, has been robust for victims, according to Lakewood city manager John Caulfield.

In total, 23 people, including nine children, were displaced by the fire. All have been able to find temporary housing with family and friends, he said. In addition, several pets were displaced. Fletcher said two of his cats died in the fire, but another two and his dog survived.

The city might be able to provide the residents with $4,000-8,000 per residence with relocation assistance, Caulfied said. Qualifiers depend on family size, need and ability to pay.

“Right now, our focus is to get them some financial assistance, to get them back on their feet as soon as possible,” Caulfield said.

The city is coordinating relocation efforts with Living Access Support Alliance, which is also helping to replace lost food, furniture and household items, according to Lakewood city spokesperson Brynn Grimley.

LeMay Inc. has offered to help clean the debris, and the city could also clean it up under an emergency abatement. Clean-up efforts are stalled due to the ongoing investigation, Grimley said.

Loan company ROC-USA is helping to replicate lost paperwork and provide relocation assistance. Food and furniture have been donated. Passersby have been leaving clothes, food and other material at the site. Clover Park School District has been assisting school-age children, Caulfield said.

The property

The 4.7-acre parcel at 7210 146th St. where the fire began is owned by Seattle-based VGU Washington Estates, a limited liability company, according to county records. It’s valued at $2.7 million.

Both McLaughlin and Fletcher said brush fires have been nearly an annual event in the lot.

While Lakewood city code specifies that grass cannot exceed 15 inches, it’s not proactively enforced, according to Grimley.

Instead, the city’s code enforcement officers respond to complaints as they are received.

“If a complaint is filed with our code enforcement team, then we will contact the property owner and request they remedy the issue first, before we move forward with more active enforcement,” Grimley said.