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Fire guts apartments

Tim Mutrie

Volunteer firefighters spent four hours yesterday battling a blaze that gutted an apartment building at 909 East Cooper Ave. in Aspen.

No injuries were reported. Residents of six apartments were without a place to stay last night, firefighters said.

Firefighters called it one of the biggest and most difficult fires to bring under control in the upper valley in recent history.

Fire Marshall Ed Van Walraven, of the Aspen Fire Protection District, said the fire started in a mechanical room in the basement, or garden level, of the three-story structure.

“The cause was some maintenance work that was being done in the basement; some folks were soldering pipes,” Van Walraven said. “I think it was started by a phenomenon called radiation, where the heat [from soldering] gets transferred to a combustible surface.”

He said he didn’t know the names of the workers he believed ignited the blaze.

Two other buildings at the same address, which are connected to the center building that burned, were not damaged, he said. Six apartment units in the center building were damaged, he said. “One was heavily damaged by fire, the others were partially damaged by smoke, fire or water.”

“It was one of the most difficult fires we’ve seen because of the way the fire traveled,” said captain Rick Balentine, of the Aspen Fire Protection District. “The travel of flame just went up the walls, making it difficult. That happens frequently in older buildings.”

Balentine said the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system.

“We were very fortunate to be able to stop it from extending to the other buildings, due to the close nature of the construction,” he said. “Our firefighters did a wonderful job stopping it from spreading. It could have been much worse.”

Tim Clark of Aspen Classic Properties, which manages the property, would not comment on the blaze. “We’re just trying to put the pieces together right now,” he said. Clark also wouldn’t say how many people were displaced by the blaze.

However, Van Walraven said that “the rental companies were able to find lodging for everybody affected.”

Julie Lampton, who lives in one of the neighboring buildings, also didn’t know how many people were without homes last night.

“I’ve been watching people cry as they see their homes burn,” she said as she watched flames dance dangerously close to her home. “At first I thought someone was barbecuing, and then I came outside and saw this.”

Dozens of people lined sidewalks in the area to watch the fire. The show got a little too close for comfort when flames burst through windows in two of the apartments.

“It blew through the windows, and then all hell broke loose,” said one onlooker. “Flames shot out the windows and you couldn’t even see the building.”

Approximately 30 volunteer firefighters from Aspen helped extinguish the fire, as well as seven from the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District. The Snowmass firefighters brought along one ladder truck.

The St. Regis hotel sent over drinks and snacks for the firefighters, who spent four hours struggling with the blaze, said Chuck Cory, of Aspen Classic Properties.

Aspen firefighters called for help from their Snowmass counterparts at 1:46 p.m., according to Lieutenant Paul Blangsted.

“We were assisting with ventilation on the roof,” Blangsted said. “We were cutting holes on the roof to relieve the toxic gasses in the building itself, to make it safer for the firefighters inside.”

Blangsted said his crew used chain saws, axes, and a halligan bar (a crowbar-like tool specialized for fire service) to cut four ventilation holes through the 12-inch thick roof of the structure.

“This is again a good time to note that for people who are going to work with soldering and the like, they should hang around for a few minutes afterwards to make sure everything is all right,” Van Walraven advised.


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