A 56-year-old Richland man went back into his burning apartment to try to extinguish the blaze, then apparently was overcome by smoke and had to be rescued by firefighters, officials said.
The resident at the Casa Grande Apartments, whose name was not released, was said to be in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said Richland Fire Marshal Kurt Hubele.
The two-alarm blaze started just before 8 p.m. Thursday inside the man's first-floor unit, then spread to two units upstairs and got into the attic. The cause is under investigation, but Hubele said it appeared to have started in the living room or kitchen.
The apartment complex at 1930 George Washington Way has an internal alarm system that worked well and alerted everyone to evacuate, Hubele said. Each unit also has smoke alarms, and Hubele said he thinks the alarm alerted the man to the fire.
"I think the mistake he made is he went down the hall, got a fire extinguisher and went back in," Hubele said.
Witnesses said the man never came back out, and two witnesses went in after him but the smoke was too heavy for them to see. They alerted the first responding firefighters that the man was down in the hallway.
"They found him just by noise," Hubele said, adding that the thick smoke was down to the ground. "They had to pull him out, and it took some time."
The victim was taken to Kadlec Regional Medical Center then flown to Harborview, where he's being treated for smoke inhalation.
Hubele said investigators are waiting for him to improve so they can talk to him about what happened. Hubele also is reviewing videos and pictures from the fire on the Herald's website and asked that anyone willing to share videos or images from the early stages of the fire could call 942-7555.
Hubele also warned that people should not try on their own to put out fires that are bigger than a wastebasket.
"Fire extinguishers are not life-safety devices," he said. "We recommend everyone just leave" and let trained professionals handle it.
In Thursday's fire, the attempt to extinguish the blaze wasn't successful, and three firefighters had to first focus on rescuing the victim instead of going right in to fight the fire.
All residents in the 36-unit complex were kept out of the building overnight Thursday, but apartment managers were working to try to get some back in their units Friday. The units on the west end are habitable, once the power is turned back on and the fire system gets back online.
Residents living in units on the east end of the building likely will not be able to stay in their apartments for some time. An apartment manager told the Herald a few apartments are available to move some residents to, but they're working to try to help find places for the others.
Because of water damage in the lobby, residents will have to temporarily pick up their mail at the West Richland Post Office.
Three units sustained heavy fire damage, while others were damaged by water and smoke.
Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes said that once crews were able to look around Friday morning, they determined the "damage was a lot worse" than they had expected.
About 50 firefighters from eight agencies in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties helped fight the flames. Crews cleared the scene around midnight Thursday.
Firefighters escorted people back into their homes Thursday night to get medications and other valuables, and they were allowed back in Friday to retrieve personal belongings. The only unit that has been blocked is the one where the fire started.
Most residents were able to stay with friends or family Thursday night. Just two families were put up in a hotel by the Benton-Franklin Chapter of the American Red Cross. Red Cross volunteers were on scene to help make arrangements and let people know that they still can get additional help from the Red Cross if needed, said Executive Director Jeane Jelke.
"Everybody seems to have the situation under control," she said. "But the other families, they know they can contact us."
The Red Cross has helped many fire victims this past year, including several multifamily fire incidents, and that has drained its annual $35,000 disaster budget. The new budget year starts in July, but Jelke said the nonprofit will continue to need support from the community -- whether it's donations or people volunteering their time.
"We just keep getting the word out to the community that the needs are pretty constant," she told the Herald. "We have to have everything in place in order to help people, we can't wait until (an emergency) happens."
Donations to the local disaster relief fund can be mailed or delivered to 7202 W. Deschutes Ave., Kennewick, 99336. They also can be made by calling 783-6195 or at www.inwredcross.org.