Faulty fireplaces, careless heater use, and other mistakes spark outer East Portland fires

The good news: no one died in these fires. Learn what caused these conflagrations, so you don’t make the same mistakes …

Portland Fire & Rescue crews hardly had time to wrap their hose lines before heading out to fight another fire this week. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Story by David F. Ashton, photos by Portland Fire & Rescue’s Dick Harris and David Ashton

When the icy North Winds blow, outer East Portland residents scramble to find ways to keep warm – and to keep their pipes from freezing and bursting. Because of poor heating choices some people are making, Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters have been kept busy this week.

Even though most of the fires were reported as “accidental”, they resulted in damage ranging from moderate to a total loss. Read about these blazes and you’ll learn valuable safety tips.

Powellhurst-Gilbert fire
On December 6, firefighters arrived at a home in the 10000 block of SE Long Street.

“When fire crews arrived at 11:40 am, they found a small fire in the crawl space near the fireplace,” said bureau spokesman Lt. Rich Tyler. “Fire crews quickly extinguished the fire with a water extinguisher, and the fire was under control at 11:46 am. The origin of this fire was determined to be an improperly-installed woodstove.”

Centennial Neighborhood home damaged
At 2:57 a.m. on December 7, firefighters rolled out to a home in 1700 block of SE 158th Avenue.

This early morning fire is attributed to a problem with the fireplace insert.

Firefighters removed the entire fireplace insert when they fought the fire.

“When fire crews arrived at 3:02 am, they found fire in the attic, near the chimney, and under the fireplace insert,” Tyler reported. “Fire crews quickly extinguished the fire, and the fire was under control at 3:32 am. The fire’s cause: wood frame members exposed to the chimney and fireplace insert heat over a long period of time.

Montavilla home destroyed by fire
Later that morning, on December 7, fire crews rolled up to a burning Montavilla house in the 300 block of SE 79th Avenue. “When fire crews arrived at 5:17 am, they found smoke coming from the house. All occupants were out of the house.”

Putting out this early morning fire was complicated by ice-cold temperatures that froze the water firefighters were spraying in and on the house. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Their next-door neighbor told us, “When I looked out, I could see fire coming up out from around their chimney. Then, it started coming out of the roof vents and sides. Finally, the roof caved in.”

Firefighters called on their radios, saying that the fire had gotten into the walls and attic of the structure, making firefighting operations difficult. “The cold weather caused water sprayed on the fire to freeze,” Tyler told us. “This made walking on sidewalks and the street extremely hazardous. After chasing the fire down in the attic, and having part of the roof collapse, fire crews nonetheless had the fire under control at 6:22 am.”

While the occupants lost almost everything in this fire, officials say they were fortunate to escape without injuries.

Fire investigators determined that this fire was also caused by the fireplace, noted Tyler. “Heat from the fireplace had caused the wood frame members to char over time, and then ignite. The residents of the home had been using the fireplace as their primary source of heat over the last couple of days. They hung blankets in passageways to keep the heat in the utilized portion of the home. The working smoke detectors were in the rooms, blocked off by the blankets from the fire. The residents were fortunate to escape the fire without injuries.”

Second Montavilla home burned
About 4:00 a.m. on December 8, firefighters responded to a house fire at 8108 SE Taylor Street and found a large older home with fire racing through the interior, and bursting from the rear windows.

This Montavilla house was fully engulfed in flame when firefighters arrived. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

“Firefighters learned from neighbors that the house was supposed to be vacant, but that there was a lot of transient activity in the recent days.” Tyler said “Conditions inside the house were not survivable when firefighters arrived, and because of the instability of the structure, no firefighters were allowed to enter.”

PF&R crews battled the fire, the freezing temperatures, and downed power lines, in their efforts to control the fire and keep it from spreading to other houses.

Crews were ordered to stay out of this burning house, said to have been occupied by vagrants. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

“Fire Investigators have determined the cause of this fire to be improper fuels being burned in the fireplace, and combustible materials too close to the fireplace. The house is a total loss,” said Tyler. Fighting that fire required closing S.E. 82nd Avenue of Roses during the morning commute period, due to extended hose lines across the road, and ice.

Chicken coop wiring burns Parkrose Heights home
Also on December 8, other firefighters raced to a home in the 11900 block of NE Morris a little after 8:00 a.m. “Crews found an attached garage involved in heavy fire,” said fire bureau spokesman Lt. Dave Centers.

An overloaded electrical circuit caused extensive damage to this home. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

“The fire extended through the attic, and into the house. It was caused by overloaded electrical wiring for a heat lamp in a chicken coop by the garage. Of the home’s $205,000 total value, it was determined to be a $100,000 loss.”

Inner NE Portland fires cause more damage
Before noon, crews the 5200 block of NE 43rd on reports of an exterior residential fire. “Cause: A propane heater too close to the siding of the house. The heater was being used to keep pipes from freezing,” Lt. Centers reported.

”At 1:44 p.m., crews responded to 600 block of NE Church,” Centers continued. “They found a large volume of fire that did heavy damage to the house. Cause: Combustible materials too close a portable heater.”

Cold weather heating tips
Tyler, Centers, and the primary Fire Bureau spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt all made a plea to Portlanders later in the week to help prevent such fires.

“The weather has gotten very cold and citizens may be looking for more economical ways of heating their homes,” Lt. Tyler said. “While a wood-burning fireplace maybe a good option, the fireplace, fireplace insert, and/or woodstove must be installed following the manufacturer’s recommended installation specifications. The best option is to have a professional install the fireplace.”

Lt. Centers added, “Make sure you have a working and tested smoke detector in all the rooms where you are sleeping. Smoke detectors are your first warning of a fire while you are sleeping.”

Learn, and don’t burn, say the Portland Fire & Rescue Public Information Officers. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

And, Lt. Oswalt supplied this fire safety checklist:

  • Keep combustible materials well away from any heating devices: fireplace, wood stove, portable heater, furnace, or electric wall/baseboard heat units.
  • Portable heaters need plenty of space – and make sure they have an automatic shutoff feature for when they may be tipped over.
  • Electric portable heaters should only be plugged into a wall outlet.  DO NOT use extension cords, especially one which has a smaller diameter than the cord on the heater itself.
  • Do not use propane or liquid-fueled heaters indoors, and never leave them running if you are not home.
  • Use a hair dryer to thaw frozen pipes.  Do not use torches or open-flame devices to heat the pipes.
  • Never use charcoal-fueled devices to heat your house.  This is an extreme fire danger, and also gives off deadly carbon monoxide – an odorless, tasteless, and invisible killer.
  • Never burn plastics or garbage in your fireplace or wood stove.  These materials tend to burn quickly, and can accelerate the intensity of a fire.
  • Clean your chimney once a year – or sooner, if needed – and only burn seasoned fire wood.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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