By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – It could be awhile before the cause of yesterday’s fire that woke the occupants of a four-unit apartment building and an adjacent house in Chehalis can be determined.
Fire Chief Jim Walkowski said investigators can’t go back inside the bigger structure until its deemed safe to enter.
Both buildings were heavily damaged, he said.
He estimated the loss to the structure and contents was as much as $400,000 to the older apartments on the corner of Northwest West Street and Rhode Island. The house to its west may be fixable, he said.
Walkowski was at the scene of the 4:30 a.m. blaze again late yesterday afternoon as workers boarded up the windows.
The northwest corner of the apartment building suffered the greatest damage, he said. The exterior on the west side is completely charred.
He said he wasn’t sure what the residents might be able to recover of any belongings left undestroyed.
“Probably not a lot,” he said. “Once it’s stable, we’ll see what we can salvage.”
Ten adults were displaced by the fire that appears to have begun in the aging apartment building and spread to the one and half story house next door. A missing cat had not yet been found by yesterday afternoon.
The local Red Cross is providing emergency shelter, food and clothing to the occupants.
Nearly 50 firefighters from eight departments battled the blaze. A 55-year-old man who lives there was hospitalized briefly for smoke inhalation.
The fire chief said he hasn’t yet determined if there were operational smoke detectors, and got a report none activated inside the apartments. He was told by the owner they were in place, he said.
Walkowski said one of the challenges was the type of construction back in 1918 or 1924 when the big building was new. Once any flames got into a wall, there was nothing in place to stop them from spreading all around inside each wall, he said.
The other big issue was a natural gas line on the west side of the building broke, so the gas fueled a flame that was pointed directly at the neighboring house, he said.
It wasn’t an option to just extinguish the fire around the line, as then the gas would still be coming out, which would have been dangerous, he said.
It was about an hour and half before the gas company could get it shut off, he said. It involved digging and more complexity than just turning a valve, he said.
Walkowski said he’s heard the “hub bub” about the fire igniting from a meat smoker or related to explosions, but said it’s too early to know the cause.
The owner of the apartment building is being asked to hire a structural engineer to certify it is safe to enter, and then fire investigators will be able to conduct their examination, he said.
For background, read “Blaze at Chehalis apartment building spreads to neighboring house” from Tuesday July 16, 2013 at 8:53 a.m., here