UPDATE: Kennewick apartment fire started by smoldering log (w/video)

Tri-City HeraldFebruary 13, 2014 

Hours after fire crews thought they had put out a fire at a Kennewick apartment complex, it apparently rekindled and began to fill Holli Calder-Cox’s apartment with smoke.

She and her husband, like their neighbors, had gone to bed Wednesday night thinking a fire that started on a deck was safely out. She was shaken awake at 2:45 a.m. Thursday by her husband.

“You couldn’t see anything because the smoke was so thick,” said Calder-Cox, 64.

They hurried outside, blankets covering their heads to shield them from the smoke. In her rush, she left behind her glasses and dentures.

By the time fire crews arrived, the fire had almost engulfed the entire roof of Building I at the Lakeside Apartments at West Clearwater Avenue and Edison Street.

The blaze burned for hours, damaging 10 units and displacing 14 people.

Everyone escaped unharmed, though one firefighter was treated for an irregular heartbeat and later released from a hospital.

“It was bad,” said resident Danny Cruzen. “People could have died.”

The Benton-Franklin Chapter of the American Red Cross is helping the residents.

Hours earlier, an apartment in the complex caught fire after a resident reportedly put a piece of smoldering wood on his deck, residents and fire officials said.

The resident apparently poured a couple of bowls of water on the wood, but it continued to burn and may have started the fire that eventually destroyed the building.

Investigators are working to determine the cause and if it started on the deck or inside.

Cruzen looked out the window of his second-floor apartment shortly before 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and saw what looked like a wood pile burning on his neighbor’s deck, he said. He grabbed a fire extinguisher while his wife, Julia, who is nine months pregnant, pulled the building’s fire alarm and knocked on neighbors’ doors.

“I saw firewood on the guy’s deck crackling and burning,” said Cruzen, 39. “I was leaning out my window trying to spray (the fire) out, but it didn’t work.”

He said he watched helplessly as flames spread across the deck.

Fire crews arrived and started to fight the blaze as it moved into an apartment and the attic.

An elderly woman was trapped in her apartment and firefighters had to knock the door down to get her out, said Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden.

Firefighters got the fire under control within an hour and searched for hot spots, Yaden said.

“They felt comfortable the fire was out from what they could see,” Yaden said. “They got up into the attic (of the apartment) and breached the ceiling on either side of the unit. They were going through the normal process of what we refer to as salvage and overhaul.”

Fire officials inspected the building as best they could and spoke with the property manager, Yaden said. They said there was “no imminent danger” to residents and turned the building over to the manager.

Residents on the second floor were told not to return home, Yaden said. There was significant damage to the apartment where the fire is believed to have started and smoke damage to two other units.

Fire officials left it up to the manager and residents on the bottom floor to decide if they wanted to stay the night or not, Yaden said.

Fire officials had the Benton Public Utility District shut off power to the burned apartment. When the last fire truck left at 11:18 p.m., “everything was OK, it was all quiet there,” Yaden said.

But the fire rekindled sometime before 3 a.m. and spread quickly throughout the building, Yaden said.

“It was a very large fire,” Yaden said. “It involved the entire roof.”

Zuhal Avdullah had fallen asleep after her family was allowed to return to their apartment after the first fire. Her father woke her up at 2:45 a.m.

“My father yelled, ‘Hey guys, run,’ ” said Avdullah, who moved to the Tri-Cities from Iraq. “I just opened the door, grabbed my blanket and cellphone, and ran. I ran with my family.”

Soon, the fire had damaged so much of the roof that it became too dangerous for firefighters to be inside, Yaden said. It took crews several hours to put the fire out and it continued to smolder late Thursday morning.

Through the day, residents picked through belongings they had managed to get outside. Big-screen TVs, family pictures, clothes and some furniture littered a grassy area.

Cruzen and his wife stood in front of their burned apartment and talked about losing all of their possessions, including all of the stuff they had for the baby due anytime.

“It’s surreal, man,” Cruzen said. “We lost everything. We lost everything in the baby room we had set up. Everything. (I’m) just upset and frustrated.”

A set of windchimes that Brandon Knotts, 21, bought for 50 cents were about all he had left after the fire. He came home from work to see the first fire and was able to grab his laptop and a change of clothes. He didn’t take anything else because he thought he would be coming back later.

“I was upset that the second fire re-sparked,” he said. “If they fully put it out, I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened.”

Yaden said investigators are working to figure out how the second fire started. He said it’s possible there could have been small fires burning in the roof area when firefighters left.

“The building appears to have had a flat roof and then over the years they put a pitched roof on,” he said. “So you could have some concealed areas there that would be hard for firefighters to see.”

Calder-Cox said she is frustrated by what happened, but that firefighters did an amazing job of making sure no one was hurt and helped residents save as much of their stuff as possible.

“I think the fire department did what they could. They didn’t really expect it to rekindle,” she said. “I don’t think they would have sent us back in if they thought we were in any danger. I am a little upset they didn’t leave a fire truck, but hindsight is always 20-20.”

Yaden said he understands the frustration.

“They did everything to their best of ability with the information they had at the time,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we had this incident. It’s a tragedy for the homeowners and the firefighters as well. Their careers are based on helping save people’s properties and lives.”

To donate to the Red Cross, go to www.redcross.org/donate or mail a donation to 7202 W. Deschutes Ave. in Kennewick.

To donate to the Cruzen family, go to www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/julia-and-danny-cruzen-residence-fire-recovery-fund/138624.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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