‘Excessive contents’ hinder firefighters as they battle Gateway house blaze

Learn why this fire turned tragic, even as fire crews raced to save a resident trapped in the smoky inferno …

Hours after fire crews leave the scene, the remains of this boarded up house show clear signs of the conflagration that claimed a man’s life.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
It’s a firefighter’s worst nightmare – searching a smoke-filled house, fully involved in flames – to rescue those who may be trapped inside.

The alarm bell rang at 5:03 a.m. on February 16 at Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) Station 30 in Gateway, with a call to investigate what a caller had described as a bonfire in a neighbor’s backyard.

Moments later, other 9-1-1 callers made it clear it was actually a house fire that was burning on NE 111th Avenue, one block south of NE Halsey Street, and additional fire equipment was immediately dispatched.

Firefighters see flames jetting from the back of this home when they arrive. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

With flames leaping from the back of the house, firefighters started pulling hose lines and hooking them up.

“Neighbors came up to firefighters and reported that one individual lived in the home, and they had not seen him come out,” said PF&R Public Information Officer Paul Corah. “Firefighters immediately launched an aggressive search for the individual.”

Feeling their way through the smoke-filled home, firefighters experienced steadily rising temperatures and soon found themselves with zero visibility.

On the outside, additional fire crews pour water into the blazing home, as the fire is fueled by an “excessive amount of contents” in the house. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Firefighters then realized they had to take care to keep their footing, and not to trip over what Corah described as “an excessive amount of contents in the home, as they performed a systematic search of the rooms.”

Making their way to the rear of the house, firefighters located a victim in his bed in one of the bedrooms. “They took the victim to the floor [below the smoke level] ready to rescue him, when some of the home’s excessive contents fell on him. Firefighters had to uncover the man to find him, and eventually evacuate him.”

Once outside, firefighter/paramedics made a sad discovery: They determined that the man, in his 50s, had died.

Just when they believe they have the fire under control, flames jet from a window. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Other firefighters [in the house] had to move contents away from the walls, before they could attack the blaze,” Corah added. “They had a challenging time getting hose lines in to fight the fire, which was active in the first and second floor walls of the home.”

All the “stuff” packed into the house fueled the fire, and caused it to burn longer and hotter than usual. “It took approximately 50 minutes to bring the fire under control,” reported Corah. “A firefighter sustained a minor burn injury while fighting the fire.”

Investigators ruled this fire “accidental” and believe it was a result of household items being located too close to a fireplace.

The investigator’s report indicates that construction materials and other debris were regularly burned for heat in the home. “A length of tree wood, too large for the firebox, was found sticking out of the fireplace,” added Corah, suggesting a cause for the blaze.

The combination of an overloaded fireplace, no smoke alarms, and loads of “stuff”, led to a deadly blaze in this now-destroyed home.

Additionally, investigators were unable to locate a smoke alarm while processing the scene, the Fire Bureau spokesman commented. The estimated value of the home and its contents was $150,000; fire investigators have determined that the home is essentially a complete loss.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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