Three-alarm fire destroys dozens of mini-storage units

See how firefighters battled the blaze, while looking for two tenants – and actually saved most of this storage complex …

Intense heat peels the paint off the main two-story building at “Money Saver Mini-Storage”, located in the Lents neighborhood.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

The report of a fire at the six-building “Money Saver Mini-Storage”, 7702 SE 92nd Avenue, just south of SE Flavel Street, on January 4 at 1:13 p.m., eventually brought as many as 38 Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) units to fight the blaze, believed to have started in the north end of a large, two-story building.

“The two-story metal building houses 453 storage rooms of various sizes,” said PF&R Public Information Officer Lt. Rich Tyler.

In addition the arduous task of locating and fighting flames in a steel building in which each room is protected by locked door, firefighters were at first concerned that two tenants may have been trapped in the building. “A man and woman had checked in, but not signed out, at the office,” Tyler told East Portland News. “The two not-accounted-for individuals were located about 2.5 hours later, and were not injured.”

SE 92nd Avenue is crowded with vehicles from Portland, Clackamas, and Gresham fire districts to this outer East Portland blaze.
In addition to the scorched paint and buckled sheet metal on the north side of the building, firefighters could see smoke rising from the roof, indicating that the fire was traveling south inside the top of the building.

“The fire is on the second floor the building,” Tyler said. “Because of the unknown contents of each storage unit, the incident commander asked for a third alarm response by fire resources. This not only pulls in a large number of PF&R resources, but also from Clackamas Fire and Gresham Fire.”

People store all kinds of things in storage units that they don’t want to store in their home or their shop, Tyler observed. “And, here, where there are hundreds of storage lockers, its like fighting fires in, or protecting, hundreds of houses – all at the same time. We have no idea what’s burning behind a locked door of a storage unit.”

From the aerial ladder of PF&R’s Woodstock Station Truck 25, sparks fly as firefighters with Parkrose Station 2 cut into the steel skin of the storage building.

The firefighter signals for the ladder to be retracted, as flames erupt from the opening he just cut into the side of the burning building.

Using circular diamond-tipped power saws, firefighters began cutting the metal cladding of the building. As a firefighter used a “Pike Pole” (a long, sturdy pole with a hook on the end) to peel back the metal siding, thick dark and acrid smoke belched from the opening.

Flames were leaped from the new opening, and the firefighters temporarily retreated while fellow crewmembers shot water into the building. First along the north side, and then along the west side, crews cut open sections of siding and flooded the interior with water.

Smoke pours out as crews continue cutting away the building’s steel cladding.

At the same time, divisions of firefighters made simultaneous fire attacks in the building. “The incident commander divided the building into four divisions, with two of the divisions assigned fire attack inside the building,” explained Tyler. “The other two divisions were assigned defensive operations.”

On three occasions, the fire attack crews challenged the blaze, but were pushed back to reorganize for a different strategy due to the complexity of the building, Tyler added. “About four hours into the incident, the decision made to take the defensive position behind the building’s firewall.”

Lt. Rich Tyler talks with a unit renter in the burning building.

Some of the storage unit renters gathered along SE 92nd Avenue, watching glumly as the building burned.

“My dad died when I was young,” remarked Jennifer, doing her best to hold back tears as she watch the crews fight the raging fire. “My storage locker has all of my memories of my dad and my family. These are all things that you just can’t buy at any store. That’s why I’m really worried.”

At first, Wes of West Coast Decorating said he too had been concerned as he watched the fire. But now, “I’m relieved; we just moved a number of new ornamental illuminated trees into our unit – but it’s not the one on fire! It looks like our products will be safe.”

Into the evening and all through the night, firefighters battle the blaze in this storage building. Greg Muhr PF&R photo

Although the building didn’t have a sprinkler system, firefighters were able to keep the blaze contained to the north half of the second floor of the building, at the firewall – directly affecting 83 units in all. Units on the first floor, below the fire zone, did suffer smoke and water damage.

Throughout the afternoon, and then overnight and into the next day, firefighters fought the stubborn remnants of the conflagration in three- to four-hour rotations. “We began the stand about 7:00 p.m. on January 5,” Tyler said.

As soon as it was safe, a team of PF&R Fire Investigators began looking through the building, searching for a possible cause and potential fuel sources.

The next day, along the west side of the building, the one can see where the exterior steel cladding is cut away, exposing the individual storage units.

“They found small propane canisters, household cleaning chemicals, aerosol paint cans, and other unknown chemicals,” Tyler said.

But what dismayed investigators was a stockpile of oil. “One unit was full of high-temperature cooking oil,” Tyler reported. However, “The cause of the fire is still under investigation.”

We researched Oregon law and found statues bearing on “Self-service Storage Facility” rental agreements, foreclosures, and the sale of abandoned goods, and such. However there currently appears to be no regulations restricting what can be stored in such units.

Insuring items stored in one of these facilities can cover fire losses, but can’t replace precious memories.

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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