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Homeowners awakened by fires outside homes

Two Spokane Valley couples were awakened this week by the sound of fires that destroyed or heavily damaged their homes.

Both homes had working smoke detectors, but the fires started outside the houses and the occupants heard a crackling sound before smoke triggered their alarms.

The similar fires were almost exactly 24 hours apart.

The first was reported at 12:19 a.m. Tuesday, at 12007 E. Maxwell Ave., when a garage was ignited by combustible materials too near a wood stove, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Bill Clifford of the Spokane Valley Fire Department. The fire spread to the house through a covered breezeway that connected the garage to the house.

Clifford said the house was destroyed and the loss was estimated at $260,000.

He said a male occupant went to a hospital for treatment of a minor injury suffered evacuating the house.

Then, at 12:17 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters were called to a house at 1310 S. Green Ridge Drive. An occupant discovered the fire after his wife woke him up and told him she thought she had heard an animal in the attic. The sound actually was caused by flames lapping against the home’s metal roof.

All five occupants escaped safely.

The extent of damage was still under investigation.

Clifford said the fire was believed to have been caused by heat tape that had been installed on the roof to melt snow and ice. The tape apparently ignited a buildup of pine needles, and the fire spread underneath the metal roofing.

The heat tape had been on the roof for a number of years, and the family simply turned it on when snow fell this winter, Clifford said.

“That stuff really needs to be examined for cracks and split wires to make sure it is in good working condition before the winter season,” Clifford recommended.

The fire department’s 191 calls in the seven days that ended Wednesday night included an arson that destroyed a structure near the Aspen Village Apartments at 15821 E. Fourth Ave.

When firefighters arrived about 2:45 a.m. last Saturday, all that was left was a 100-square-foot patch of burning plastic on the ground.

“The porta-potty was a total loss,” Clifford said.

Instead of stomping out the remnants of fire with their boots, firefighters smothered the flames with snow. The department is called to porta-potty fires with some regularity, but they’re always “a memorable occasion,” Clifford said.

Technically, the cause was undetermined, but Clifford had no doubt it was arson.

Regardless of what you may have seen in the movies, “those things don’t spontaneously ignite,” he said.

Clifford asked anyone with information about the arson to call fire investigators at (509) 928-1700.

A couple of fires on Wednesday offered object lessons. In one case, the object disappeared.

Clifford said a woman at 11404 E. 23rd Ave. noticed about 5:30 p.m. that her deck had a circular “burn pattern” and her potted plant was gone. Then she remembered she’d extinguished a cigarette in the plastic flower pot when she let her dog out around midnight.

The fiery flora burned through the deck, but caused no other damage. Clifford called that lucky.

“We’ve seen this time and time again,” he said, and the result often is severe damage to houses and apartment complexes.

The lesson, aside from the wisdom of using fireproof ash trays, is that potting soil burns. It’s composed of wood fiber, not plain dirt.

Clifford drew a cooking lesson from a Wednesday afternoon fire that caused minor injuries to an elderly woman. Her first mistake was to let a pot of food catch fire, but it was her decision to carry the pot to the sink and run water over it that caused her to be burned.

She managed not to spill the burning food onto herself on the way to the sink, but pouring water on a fire fueled by cooking oil can cause the flames to “flash” out sideways. Also, water quickly turns into jets of steam, Clifford said.

He recommends keeping a lid handy to smother cooking fires or at least suppress them enough to give the cook a chance to turn off the stove. If a fire extinguisher is available and can be used safely, give it a try before leaving the house and calling 911, Clifford advised.

Burned food caused some of the 11 automatic alarms in the past week, and the rest were false or accidental.

Only one vehicle fire was reported, but it turned out to be an overheated engine. Clifford said firefighters couldn’t find the trash fire someone reported in the middle of the pavement at the intersection of Pines and Valleyway.

Three vehicle accidents resulted in only one minor injury, but the potential for tragedy was great. Clifford said two pedestrians, a 4-year-old and his father, were waiting to cross the intersection at McDonald and Broadway when the boy stepped out on his own.

A car slowly rounding the corner struck the boy a glancing blow that knocked him down. He got up crying but apparently not seriously injured, Clifford said.

With many streets still lined with snow berms, Clifford urged motorists to be especially watchful for pedestrians.

There were 157 calls for emergency medical service and two for general service.

On Tuesday afternoon, firefighters helped a woman whose oxygen tube had gotten tangled in her wheelchair.

Clifford said firefighters were asked to check on a man’s welfare Wednesday, but he was OK when they knocked on his door and woke him up about 1:45 a.m.

John Craig may be contacted at