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Apartment building residents escape fire

Richard Henderson wraps himself in a blanket after a fire Tuesday forced him out of his apartment on East Sprague Avenue. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Richard Henderson wraps himself in a blanket after a fire Tuesday forced him out of his apartment on East Sprague Avenue. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

Arson suspected in blaze at converted house

The Spokane fire marshal ordered closure of a substandard apartment building Tuesday after a fire believed to be arson damaged a portion of the crowded and cluttered property.

“It’s a wreck,” said Fire Marshal Lisa Jones as she inspected a series of small makeshift apartments in a converted house at 2217 E. Sprague Ave.

Residents said the fire started in a main-story space filled with books and furniture known as “the church,” Jones said.

Investigators sifted through debris to find the point of origin. While he provided no details, Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer did say the fire was “purposefully set” and that investigators were following up on some people of interest.

The area had been locked and secured Monday night, according to the property manager.

Several residents made it out safely when the fire broke out about 5:30 a.m.

Richard Henderson, who occupied a rear apartment, said he heard a loud thud. He went outside and checked along an outer wall.

“I looked in this window and saw flames shooting out the back wall,” Henderson said.

He said he ran to Sprague Avenue and flagged down a motorist and passenger who let him use a cell phone to call 911.

“Everybody got out safe,” he said.

Jones said it appeared that three apartments were occupied by renters, one of whom told her he was paying $250 a month, but as many as seven people may have been living there.

Henderson said his rent was $175.

The property is owned by an entity called the Houston Church of Christ Inc., which listed a residential address on the 4600 block of North Howard Street, according to county property records.

A copy of the deed shows that John Burya sold the property in 2008 to the church as represented by Paul Tigner. Inside the building, fire officials found extension cords hanging from ceilings, bathroom fixtures installed in various locations, including a toilet in a closet, space heaters and baseboard heaters positioned dangerously close to combustibles, and a basement exit window illegally boarded up.

“This is atrocious,” Jones said. “Nobody should live in these kinds of conditions.”

The exhaust flue for an aging furnace, which residents said was not being used, would have leaked carbon monoxide into the basement.

The building had five mailboxes but seven electrical meters. Jones was checking to see if the apartments had received a city building permit as required.

An expanded basement on the west side of the house was filled with old belongings but apparently was used in part as a place to sleep.

Jones said it appeared the building had been used by non-renters.

A pile of old building materials was stacked along the west side of the building, which Jones called a “kindling pile.” An old school bus parked next to the materials was also filled with items.

The debris triggered a recent complaint against the property, which resulted in a notice of violation from the city building department last week.

The Red Cross disaster assistance team was at the fire scene Tuesday morning, helping residents with temporary housing and emergency items.

Residents were being allowed into the building to retrieve belongings before it was to be boarded up under the no-occupancy order.

One of the residents, who uses a bicycle to get around, told Jones and other emergency workers, “I’ve been homeless off and on. I’ll be fine.”

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