Two 82nd Avenue commercial fires confound investigators

Discover why either one of these fires could have endangered firefighters, as they battled to contain these blazes …

From above, on and below, Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters battle an intense blaze at the Public Storage facility on SE 82nd Avenue. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Story and some photos by David F. Ashton
Fires on March 26 and 28 – both of them on 82nd Avenue – potentially provided dangerous conditions for Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) crews as they battled the twin blazes.

A call reporting smoke, on March 26, at the 444-unit, city-block-sized Public Storage compound at 1202 SE 82nd Avenue, sent PF&R Station 19’s firefighters racing to the scene at 8:21 p.m.

They were soon joined by companies from other stations, as firefighters searched for the source of the smoke.

Even though five engines pour thousands of gallons of water on the fire, it continues to grow. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

“Flames then became visible from the roof of the structure,” said PF&R spokesman, Tommy Schroeder – adding that the crews faced a new danger: The unknown contents of hundreds of storage units. “Crews heard explosions as they made their way around the storage units.”

When flames started shooting out of building, the Incident Commander ordered firefighters to evacuate the roof and attack the fire defensively. “The commander also called for a 2nd Alarm, bringing more firefighters, engines, and trucks to the scene,” Schroder informed us.

While some firefighters sprayed water from aerial turrets of multiple fire trucks, others made a ground attack, going from storage unit to storage unit, cutting open doors and spraying water on the fire.

Firefighters pull back to defensive positions as they continue to fight the fire – being fueled by unknown stored items in the units. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

“At 9:46 pm, portions of the structure’s roof began collapsing; firefighters continued attacking the blaze from the air,” continued Schroder.

Traffic stacked up on SE 82nd Avenue in both directions as additional fire units, including one that supplies breathing air bottles and supplies for firefighters, formed an encampment a couple blocks north of Portland Community College’s Southeast Center.

With five fire trucks spraying 1,500 gallons of water per minute on the blaze, some eight inches of standing water accumulated the storage complex.

With all the water pumped in and on this massive commercial fire, the alleyways soon flood. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

“Firefighters assumed a secondary mission – property conservation,” explained Schroder. “In addition to monitoring for hot spots, firefighters cleared drains and mechanically pumped out water, in an effort to salvage property in the storage units.”

As a security guard looks on, fire investigators, insurance adjusters and facility staff discuss the damage caused by the fire.

Early in the week, customers stopped by the unit were turned back when they tried to check on their stowed belongings.

“I’m really worried,” Melissa Hampton told us as she anxiously looked at the yellow fire tape that blocked the entrance of the facility. “We’re redoing our house, and almost everything we own is in there. We could lose everything. I don’t know if my homeowner’s insurance will cover this.”

Although fire investigators originally said they expected to announce the cause, and possible contributing factors, that led to this cinder-block complex burning within a few days, their report – including damage estimates – has yet to be made public as of the date of publication.

Firefighters fight ‘blaze in a maze’

Firefighters find they need ladders – as well as water lines – to fight this multi-level fire at the abandoned NE Portland bowling alley and athletic facility. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

But, there was one more mysterious fire to come this week.

Two days later, on the morning of March 28, PF&R crews rolled out at 7:42 am on reports of thick black smoke coming from what once was the Nautilus athletic facility – and adjoining bowling alley – just east of NE 82nd Avenue on NE Russell Street.

“Arriving crews found fire inside the building on both the first and second floors,” spokesman Schroder announced. “Fortunately, both buildings were found to be vacant.”

Finding their way through a maze of rooms and levels, firefighters work to quench the fire. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

Incident Commanders called for a 2nd alarm at 8:07 am, bringing additional firefighters, trucks, engines, and resources to the scene.

Fighting the blaze was unexpectedly complicated, crews found, because there are adjoining basements below both the athletic facility and bowling alley. “This means the two buildings have a maze-like configuration; it made this fire more difficult to attack,” explained Schroder.

All firefighters, even crews working outside the building, keep their air tanks and masks on due to the pool chemicals stored in the health club. Greg Muhr, PF&R photo

A further problem, Schroder acknowledged, was the crews found many 5-gallon containers of swimming-pool chemicals stored in the building. “Firefighters took special precautions due to possible exposure to chemicals. The air was constantly monitored, and firefighters wore their self-contained breathing apparatus to ensure their safety while inside the structure.”

Because the cause of this blaze also remains under investigation, officials have yet to report damage estimates to this building, also.

“Our firefighters’ aggressive attack saved the bowling alley from sustaining significant damage,” Schroeder noted. “No one was injured.”

Cover photo, courtesy of Greg Muhr, PF&R

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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