Challenging location tests firefighters’ ability to quench apartment blaze

You’ll see why the firefighter’s big aerial ladder trucks were useless to help them fight a blaze in the Centennial Neighborhood which lit 150-foot trees behind the two-story units. It’s all right here …

Because the apartment buildings are tucked away nearly a half-block north of SE Powell Boulevard, firefighters had to haul hose lines and equipment in to the fire – and then connect their water supply to a hydrant across Powell traffic lanes to fight the fire.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A fire that started on September 3 in the far northwest unit of the Kimberly Dawn Apartments, at 15007 SE Powell Boulevard, could have been disastrous.

“The alarm was sounded at 8:41 p.m., and firefighters started arriving 8:45 p.m.,” reported Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesperson Lt. Allen Oswalt.

Fire spreads in attic space
What we’d heard on the emergency radio – that a fire from one unit had broken through the ceiling and started to burn in the attic of these two-story town homes – was confirmed by a resident, an eyewitnesses to the events as they unfolded, Gary Boyd.

“Fire was shooting out of the back upstairs window of that apartment,” Boyd told us, “and the sparks were shooting up, catching the pine trees on fire. Thick black smoke was pouring out of the attic vent, here on the opposite end of the building, until the firefighters got to it. But flames were shooting out the windows – that really caught my attention.”

Firefighters quench the blaze, both from inside the unit and up on the roof.

Boyd said that as he watched, companies of firefighters carried hoses and ladders from their trucks, parked in the long driveway leading north from SE Powell Boulevard. Neighbors already had their garden hoses out, trying to stop the growing blaze.

“The trees right behind the building started to catch on fire,” Boyd reported. “But, they must be 150 feet tall; firemen couldn’t shoot their water that high from the ground.”

On scene, Portland Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief C3 Mark Gift told us that initial reports had said the fire was on SE 150th Avenue, the street directly to the west of the complex. “There was some confusion, because the apartment building sets way back [in the property], approximately 100 yards from Powell Boulevard. This made accessible difficult.”

Limbs from conifers started to burn, when fire erupted from this second-story window.

Crews from different rigs combined their hose runs to bring water in to the fire, Gift added. Then, they carried wrapped lengths of hose – they call them “hotel bundles” – to the door of the burning unit, and charged into the burning structure.

“We were concerned when it hit the trees, because it’s ‘that’ time of year,” Gift told us. “We are in the wildland fire season, and there’s a lot of urban/wildland interface here.  We had a number of tall trees very close to the back of the apartments.”

The fire could have been worse – it could have burned down the entire building, making all of the residents homeless. “We did have a quick response; it was fairly centrally located between four of our eastside fire stations,” Gift explained. “There was a good aggressive external attack.  Other crews ‘took’ the exposures.  We got a real quick knockdown on this fire.  We made sure that we opened up the ceilings in the other apartments, to make sure that we didn’t have any fire extensions. The crews did a good job.”

Cause of fire undisclosed
Although this fire remains under investigation, Gift said that it apparently started inside an apartment. “Right now our fire investigators are on scene doing their investigation.”

The crews from four engines and two trucks responded to the fire – and were on-scene until nearly midnight.

While balancing on the roof, two stories up, aPF&R  firefighter sprays the tall trees directly behind the apartment building to make sure no embers will flair up after they’ve left the scene.

Oswalt confirmed the radio traffic we’d heard, indicating that one occupant from the affected apartment was treated at the scene for a minor burn to his arm; he was not transported to the hospital. The building’s estimated value was $500,000; the loss was estimated at $100,000; the contents value $20,000; the contents loss $5,000.

The American Red Cross Oregon Trail Chapter responded to the fire, and assisted four adults with immediate needs, such as food, shelter and clothing.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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