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Vancouver Fire Department extinguishes fire at Smith Tower in downtown Vancouver; no injuries reported

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 23, 2024, 12:20pm

A two-alarm, high-rise fire Friday morning at Smith Tower in downtown Vancouver left one resident displaced but unharmed.

Vancouver Fire Department Fire Capt. Shane Parker said dispatch received reports at 10:26 a.m. of smoke coming from the 10th floor of the building at 515 Washington St. Responding crews arrived on scene in less than five minutes.

The first crews to arrive saw smoke coming from an upper floor and ordered residents to shelter in place in their units, according to emergency radio traffic monitored by The Columbian.

“The alarm was then upgraded to a second alarm,” Parker said, which meant additional resources may be needed.

8 Photos
People and firefighters in Smith Tower look out from balconies during a two-alarm fire downtown Friday morning, Feb. 23, 2024.
Smith Tower Fire Photo Gallery

When firefighters got to the 10th floor, they found the fire was contained to the contents of a single apartment, the fire department said.

“They made entry and extinguished the fire within minutes,” Parker said.

Crews searched the floor and found one resident in a nearby unit and two residents in units on the 11th floor, according to emergency radio traffic. None of the residents were injured, the fire department said.

Russell Grider, who lives on the 11th floor, said he and his wife were relaxing in their apartment, enjoying the sunny morning, when the fire alarm sounded.

“The alarm went off then somebody came around banging on our doors,” Grider said.   

The couple gathered up their essential items, he said, then headed down the stairs.

Initially, Grider wasn’t that worried because there have been past false fire alarms, he said. But this time was different.

“When you opened the door you could smell the smoke,” Grider said.

Once the fire was out, windows were opened to allow the smoke to clear, and the fire department remained on scene to assist residents.

Parker said the building was not evacuated because “it’s too risky and too logistically challenging to move people out of a floor with just a single unit on fire.” It was safer for the residents to stay in their apartments, he said, than try to navigate a smoke-filled hallway.

Although the fire was relatively small and quickly contained, Parker said it was a good example of why responding to high-rise fires is so difficult.

When a fire is reported, responding firefighters must use the stairs rather than the elevators, he explained. Had this been a larger fire requiring the building to be evacuated, that would have left crews carrying all of their gear — respirators, hoses, oxygen tanks and axes — up numerous flights of stairs while residents would be trying to come down the same stairs.

Pat Ayala, 79, left her apartment early Friday morning to go shopping. As she rode the bus back home, she said she noticed traffic was backing up to Fourth Plain Boulevard. But she never imagined it could have anything to do with her apartment building, she said. When she finally stepped off the bus, she said she was met with a sea of fire trucks and police cars.

“My first thought was it’s a riot — or a shooting,” Ayala said.

Ayala, who is retired, has lived at Smith Tower for five years. She said life is usually pretty quiet there, although there was a fatal shooting in the building two weeks after she moved in.

The Vancouver Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the fire. A total of 19 units responded, including 12 fire engines, three trucks and five chief officers. More than 50 personnel from the Vancouver Fire Department, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue and Clark County Fire District 6 responded to the call. The Vancouver Police Department also responded to direct traffic.

Reporter Becca Robbins contributed to this story.