Careless butt-handling causes apartment blaze

This apartment building has seen more that its share of fire, neighbors say.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The sound of smashing glass awoke Parkrose resident Ted Wentz in the wee hours of April 9. “Transients use our street to go between The Grotto and NE Sandy Blvd. I thought they were breaking beer bottles in the street again.”

But when Wentz looked out the window, he saw the four-plex apartment building at 4415 NE 88th Avenue ablaze.

“Flames were coming up from the lower level, and the smoke and fire was just shooting up over the balcony – just like a giant barbecue or bonfire,” exclaimed eyewitness Wentz. “I grabbed the phone and called 9-1-1. They kept asking for the address; I gave them mine and told them ‘It’s right across the street, about a block from your fire station [#12] just south on Sandy Boulevard’.”

After he hung up, Wentz said he ran across the street. “I saw the garage next to the neighbor’s house, directly across the street from me, starting to smoke because of the heat. I hooked up her garden hose and started spraying water on her garage.” His effort kept the fire at bay until firefighters arrived.

Official records show the first call reporting the fire came in 2:37 am; Engine 12 pulled up at 2:40 am. “When firefighters arrived, they reported fire coming from the doors, windows, and the roof of the building,” confirmed Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt.

Crewmembers from PF&R Station 12 – here, from the next day’s shift – examine the fire damage, and take note of the work their fellow firefighters did 12 hours earlier.

Resident rouses occupants
Wentz said he saw someone rousting the residents, making sure everyone was out of the house. “I understand he was visiting his son, and is a sheriff somewhere; he must have dressed quickly.”

Oswalt said that as firefighters made a quick attack on the fire, other crewmembers searched for trapped victims. “Reports from occupants that all of the residents were accounted for allowed firefighters to concentrate their efforts on limiting the fire’s spread.”

As the firefighters were getting their hoses ready, Wentz recalled that a resident yelled, “There’s a propane tank on the side of the building!” Firefighters grabbed it and moved it out of harm’s way.

“The flames were just amazing,” Wentz said. “When they cut into the roof, flames shot out. Somehow the flames got all the way from the lower level into the upper unit, and all the way out the roof.”

Oswalt commented, “The fire found its way into the attic; a tough place to fight a fire. Firefighters cut holes in the roof to douse the fire from above; others worked in the apartments below, by pulling the sheet-rock ceilings down to give access to the underside of the roof structure.”

Dog makes a break for it
In the early moments of the conflagration, Wentz said, the occupants of the unit above burning apartment were trying to coax their dog from its kennel. “But, as soon as they opened the door that leads to the stairs, the dog took off and ran south toward The Grotto. She and her boyfriend ran after the dog and found it. They asked us to keep the dog in our fenced back yard until things calmed down.”

The blaze was so intense, it took a full half hour for firefighters to get it under control.

All of this damage; all of this loss was caused by a careless discarded cigarette, officials say.

Third fire at structure
This is not the first fire at this location, Wentz told us. “When they were building it, somebody lit the Porta-Potty on fire.”

The next fire occurred, he said, “When a girl, living in the lower, north unit, got a smoking can or ashes too close to the side of the building. It lit the apartment’s siding on fire.”

This time, according to PF&R’s Oswalt, “Fire Investigators have determined that the fire was accidentally caused by ‘improper disposal of a cigarette’. One of the occupants had discarded a cigarette into a cardboard box, which ignited and spread to a sofa, and then to the structure.”

As a result of the fire, Oswalt told us, two of the units suffered heavy damage from the fire and smoke, and the other two units were moderately damaged. “Firefighters used plastic sheeting to cover the belongings in the units, in an attempt to limit the damage to the occupants’ possessions.”

Red Cross to the rescue
The Oregon Trail Chapter of The Red Cross sent four volunteers to the scene. Because there were a total of eleven displaced residents, workers set up a temporary emergency reception center at the nearby Howard Johnson Hotel to assist the occupants.

“I saw the Red Cross come here, and found out that they were helping these people with a place to stay, some clothing, and food for a few days,” commented Wentz. “That’s really great; I didn’t know they did that. I might just be giving them a donation.”

  • Find out more about the Oregon Red Cross by visiting their website: CLICK HERE.

Lesson to be learned
Never missing an opportunity to provide fire education, Oswalt commented, “All smoking material should be disposed of in a non-combustible container, preferably metal, with a tight-fitting lid. Residue from ashtrays should also be disposed of in a metal container with a tight- fitting lid.”

There were no reported injuries. The monetary damage estimate is unavailable at this time.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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