PULLMAN – At least three people were hurt in five fires Thursday morning during what one Pullman official called the worst string of suspicious blazes in about 30 years in this college town.
The fires destroyed a nine-unit apartment building, house and detached garage; damaged another detached garage; and consumed multiple vehicles.
One man, believed by fire officials to be a Washington State University student, crashed through a first-floor window of the apartment building but found himself stranded on a nearby retaining wall. Even though the man was 25 to 30 feet from the flames, he suffered burns and smoke inhalation as fire crews raced to get a ladder to get him down, Assistant Pullman Fire Chief Mike Heston said.
“This is very serious,” Heston said of the string of fires. “We’ve had dumpster fires, grass fires and all other kinds of fires, but nothing of this caliber. It is very suspicious.”
The man who suffered burns was later airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Pullman Fire Chief Pat Wilkins said. He was not identified.
Heston, who has worked in Pullman since 1979, said he was calling in extra firefighters Thursday night.
“We are beefing up our staffing and making sure our mutual aid is ready in case it happens again,” Heston said.
The chaos began at 4:31 a.m. Thursday with the report of a detached garage burning in the 500 block of Jackson Street in southeast Pullman.
Crews arrived to find the open garage and two parked cars fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters knocked down that fire within minutes.
However, as the crews were walking down the street from that fire, one of them noticed smoke rolling out of the door jamb of a detached garage four houses away. That garage was closed and the fire was just getting started some distance away from a parked car, Heston said.
“I started thinking this is kind of suspicious,” Heston said. “And then we got a call to this (apartment) fire as we were leaving that other (garage) fire.”
That call came in at 5:13 a.m. Pullman crews responded to the nine-unit apartment complex and neighboring house at Nye and True streets. After seeing both structures fully engulfed in flames, Pullman officials called for help from Colfax, Moscow and Whitman County Fire District 12, Heston said.
“We got a report that someone was still inside (the apartment). A man was on the lower level and was trapped by flames,” Heston said.
Only two of the nine units were occupied. One man escaped unharmed, and the second went through the window and was rescued from the retaining wall.
Neighbor Vinh Tran, 47, said his wife woke him about 5 a.m. after she heard “popping sounds.”
“I went out to investigate. I thought it was domestic violence or gunfire or something like that,” said Tran, a chef who works in Moscow. “When I opened the bedroom door, there were no flames but it was all heat.
“I looked outside and the flames were burning on the outside of the house. I just grabbed my wife and tried to find a way out.”
Tran and his wife ran through the house and broke their way out through a kitchen window. Tran said his wife injured her foot in the short jump and both suffered cuts from the broken glass.
“I was afraid and my wife was panicked. She was yelling and crying,” Tran said.
Nearby and at about the same time, 23-year-old Sean Collison said he heard two “big bangs” and heard his neighbors screaming “fire.”
“I saw this big plume of flame coming from the carport area” of the nine-unit apartment building, said Collison, a graduate computer engineering student from Spokane Valley. “I could actually feel the heat when I opened the door.”
Heston confirmed that local fire investigators and state fire marshals from the Region 8 Fire Investigation Task Force out of Walla Walla were focusing their search for clues near the carport. Heston said it appears the fire started there and then spread first to the apartment building and then to Tran’s home.
“We are thankful no one got seriously injured because, man, it was rolling,” Heston said of the structure fire.
As crews battled the most serious blaze, they got another call at 6:45 a.m. to respond to the 200 block of South Grand Street on the report of an SUV on fire in an alley. That blaze was quickly extinguished before spreading to any structures.
Heston said the string of fires was very troubling, “especially when someone could have gotten hurt or worse.”
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