Investigation: Kennewick fire crews followed protocol at Lakeside Apartments fires

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldMarch 8, 2014 

Kennewick fire crews followed department protocol before they left the scene of an apartment fire last month that eventually rekindled and burned while residents slept inside, fire officials said Thursday.

Fire officials recently completed an investigation into two fires Feb. 12 at the Lakeside Apartments on West Clearwater Avenue.

Firefighters thoroughly inspected the building to make sure the first fire was out before leaving the scene, Kennewick Fire Chief Neil Hines said.

They pulled parts of the building's ceiling down, cleared materials from a burned top-floor apartment and used a thermal imaging camera to look for hot spots, Hines said.

After the fire, officials determined there was no imminent danger and allowed residents on the bottom floor back to their apartments. Residents on the top floor were told not to return home.

"One thing that we need to be aware of is that in this situation there were no breaches of fire department policy," Hines said at Kennewick City Hall. "Our officers on scene are trained to make those decisions on how to transition the property back over to the owner. They made that determination. There was a lot of competing interests here."

Most residents who spoke with the Herald commended fire crews for their willingness to help and for getting everyone out safely.

However, they are also frustrated that the second fire started and believe it could have been prevented.

"I am disappointed the fire department didn't leave a spotter. Not leaving someone to watch, I do hold them a little responsible," said Holli Calder-Cox, 64, who lived below where the first fire started.

"But what are you going to do? We got out with our lives and that is the most precious thing to us. We got to hug our grandkids the next day."

The first fire in Building I started shortly before 8:45 p.m. after a resident left smoldering wood on a back deck, officials said. The fire was under control within an hour and the last fire truck left the scene at 11:18 p.m.

Fire officials said they turned the building over to apartment management after deeming the top floor to be uninhabitable.

Firefighters were called back around 3 a.m. as a second fire began to engulf the building's roof. Residents who returned home fled as their apartments filled with smoke.

No residents were injured in the fires, though one firefighter was sent to a local hospital with an irregular heartbeat.

Officials determined the second fire, which eventually collapsed the building's roof, started somewhere in the attic. Firefighters fought the large blaze into the morning.

Officials can't determine exactly how the second fire started, though it's possible an ember could have gotten into a pocket in the attic covered by insulation, they said.

"The probable cause (of the second fire) is something got into a concealed area in the building, then over the course of hours, built up to the point where we got called on it again," Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden said.

It has taken residents nearly a month to get back on their feet and return to their normal lives. Many lost nearly all of their possessions in the fires and all were left without a home.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross helped a total of eight families from the complex, said Peggy Hoggarth, the organization's executive director. Residents received clothing, temporary housing and money to help them while they searched for new places to live.

Brandon Knotts, 21, lived on the top floor of Building I and now has moved to a new apartment complex, he said. He was able to salvage some of his things and is looking forward to putting the fire behind him.

Knotts doesn't blame firefighters that the complex was destroyed, he said.

"I am little disappointed," he said. "But I am sure it was just an oversight. That's just something that happens. I know they tried their best. It just sucks."

Calder-Cox, who is the director of Project Warm-Up, a Tri-Cities nonprofit, said community support for the Lakeside residents has helped her cope with losing her home and some of her possessions.

Calder-Cox and her husband have moved into another apartment at Lakeside and hope to look for a new place this summer, she said.

"I am proud of the Tri-Cities community for stepping up," she said. "We have gotten so much help we were able to pay it forward. When donations came in, we took what we needed and paid the rest forward."

Hines told the Herald his department is looking at ways it can improve following the fire.

He wants develop a system where fire officials and property managers must go through a checklist, similar to a safety checklist firefighters go through, before crews leave a scene.

Having a checklist will help develop a plan for how to manage a fire after it's out and crews leave, Hines said.

"Our firefighters are in the business of helping people and assisting people," Hines said. "Nobody feels worse about the whole thing than our people on the fire. We take a lot of pride in what we do. We never want to go back and have to fight a fire again, but unfortunately it does happen."

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556;; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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