Cigarette possible cause of Roseway apartment fire

Residents and neighbors were startled when a ball of fire erupted from the side of the five-plex. And, the exploding electrical panel came as quite a surprise …

Smoke billows from this five-plex, located in the Roseway neighborhood.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

A thick, dark column of smoke rising into the air in outer East Portland made it simple for Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) to find the location of a dispatch at about 6:13 p.m. on May 1.

Crews were being directed to 3908 NE 81st Avenue at NE Failing Street, on the report of an apartment building fire.

After searching the apartments for victims, firefighters enter the unit and attack the fire.

Heavy smoke was showing from the building as PF&R Engine 12 pulled up to the fire, soon to be joined by units from Parkrose Station 2 and several other stations.

Some firefighters entered the burning structure, looking for victims or residents trapped inside, while others began “laying in” water lines to fight the blaze.

Outside the structure, an electrical junction box makes a loud crackling sound, before it explodes into flames.

A firefighter on the north side of the apartment house noticed flames coming from under the eaves of the single-story structure, and began to shoot water at the fire. As the water stream hit the electrical power junction box, it exploded into flames; the firefighter shut off the water and pulled back.

“A lady who lives next door knocked on my door and said her apartment was on fire,” Ruth Conner told East Portland News. “I didn’t believe it, until I started hearing windows exploding, busting out all over. We could hardly breathe; the smoke got so heavy, so fast.”

Firefighters cut holes in the roof, providing “vertical ventilation” that allows hot combustible gasses inside the structure to quickly dissipate.

“After confirming no one was inside, the fire was located and extinguished,” said PF&R spokesman Jesse Altig. “Additional fire crews went to the roof to cut vertical ventilation openings for the structure.”

The damage was held to just one of the five units, Altig said. He added that there were no injuries related to the fire.

Inside the affected unit, firefighters pull down the ceiling, looking for any remaining hot spots and embers.

Another neighbor, asking not to be identified, said the resident of the unit where the fire started stated that she’d left a lit cigarette in an ashtray before going into her bathroom. When she returned, she found her bedroom ablaze. This report is unconfirmed; a PF&R fire investigator came to the scene, the cause of this fire has not yet been released.

The combined loss of goods and structure was estimated at $260,000.

By 7:30 p.m. that evening American Red Cross Cascades Division volunteers arrived with help for two adults affected by the fire, providing lodging, food, comfort kits, and information about disaster mental health and disaster health services.

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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