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CdA blaze kills brothers

 Coeur d'Alene Fire Inspector Glen Lauper, center,  talks with Coeur d'Alene police Sgt. Christie Woodat the scene of a fatal fire  Friday. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Coeur d'Alene Fire Inspector Glen Lauper, center, talks with Coeur d'Alene police Sgt. Christie Woodat the scene of a fatal fire Friday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two young brothers died in a Coeur d’Alene house fire early Friday that investigators believe started when the boys were playing with papers and a lighter in their basement bedroom.

Firefighters found brothers Christopher R. Franco, 4, and Andre J. Franco, 5, dead in the basement of their rental home at 1520 E. Birch Ave., near Lakes Middle School, after responding to the fire about 2 a.m. Relatives told police the boys have a history of playing with fire.

The boys’ uncle, Jerry Franco, their mother, Bernadette Franco, and her live-in boyfriend, Roy Burleson, were asleep on the main floor of the one-story home when Jerry Franco awoke to the smell of smoke, according to Coeur d’Alene police.

The three escaped unharmed after they tried to enter the basement, but couldn’t because of the amount of smoke and overwhelming heat, police spokeswoman Christie Wood said.

“It’s looking like it was a tragic accident,” Wood said.

The family recently moved to Coeur d’Alene from New Mexico. The owner of the home lives in California.

Family members said the boys previously had started a fire at the residence, as well as blazes at the homes of relatives, Wood said.

Firefighters responded to Friday’s blaze within five minutes of being called and had it contained within 15 minutes, according to the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department, though heavy smoke and heat caused some delays. The flames engulfed the basement but didn’t move to the main floor of the house, leaving the small, wood-sided structure standing.

Coeur d’Alene resident Julie Ballenger stopped by the scene Friday after hearing news reports of the fire. Ballenger owned the home for seven years before selling it in November 2004, she said.

She said she was devastated to hear about the boys, adding that the basement was never intended to be used as a bedroom.

“I can’t believe they’d let two kids sleep down there,” she said. “It’s so not a bedroom.”

Ballenger said she used the basement for storage and as a playroom for her two nephews when they visited. But the children were never left alone down there, and she said family members worried about the safety of the basement even then.

There’s a bathroom in the basement with a window, but the area could hardly be considered a full-sized room, she said.

“I can’t believe two kids died in there,” Ballenger said. “It’s so upsetting.”

A dog that police believe was with the boys in the basement also perished in the fire, but firefighters were able to rescue a pet rabbit.

Three Coeur d’Alene Fire Department crews and one crew each from Kootenai County Fire & Rescue and Northern Lakes Fire Protection District battled the blaze.

By Friday afternoon, the police tape was a gone and a few flowers lay next to the home’s mailbox.

This is the second fire in two months that has claimed the life of a young child in Coeur d’Alene. Thirteen-month-old Kylla Pahl died in late July from burns sustained in a fire in the home she shared on C Street with her mother.

Wood said Friday’s fire serves as a reminder for parents to teach their children about the danger of playing with fire.

“If you’re having children experimenting with fire, we really encourage you to take them to the fire station, meet and talk to the firemen, and be educated on the dangers of fire,” Wood said.