Fryingpan Road apartment fire displaces 33 residents
December 18, 2011
BASALT – Two fires lit up skies in different parts of the midvalley 12 hours apart on Friday night and Saturday morning – the first blaze displacing 33 residents of an apartment complex in Fryingpan Valley, and the second destroying a barn and killing a goat in the Emma area.
The apartment complex sustained major damage: “I think it’s going to be a $3 million loss,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. No firefighters or tenants were injured.
There were 11 units in the complex at 4959 Fryingpan Road, about 4.5 miles east of Basalt. Ten were occupied. The complex is the former Sterkerville roadhouse, a bar, restaurant and lodge that dated to at least the early 1960s. It was converted into an apartment building after the commercial operation closed.
The fire gutted six units. The five units in the southern part of the structure received smoke and water damage but weren’t destroyed by fire.
The cause is under investigation. There is nothing suspicious, Thompson said.
Robyn Lawry, who owns the property with her husband, Warrick Mobray, said a resident called her at 6:38 p.m. to report smoke. She arrived on the scene within a few minutes because she lives only 2 miles away. She called authorities and started rousting residents out of their apartments.
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Lawry said she initially thought the situation would be “all right” because there was just smoke coming from some units. Firefighters trying to locate and extinguish the blaze cut a hole in the roof. Flames shot out from the hole.
“It was like something out of a movie,” Lawry said.
Thompson said the fire department was called at 6:49 p.m. The first responders found a “smoky, smoldering fire.” The fire was initially within a wall, then climbed into the ceiling and into a shared attic that didn’t have fire walls. That allowed the fire to spread quickly.
“Once we exposed it, the thing took off,” Thompson said. “It exploded.”
Flames jumped at an estimated 50 to 70 feet above the building, melting one of the overhead power lines and sending it tumbling to the ground. Electricity was knocked out everywhere in the Fryingpan Valley above the disaster site until the fire was extinguished and Holy Cross Energy workers could restore the line.
Thompson said firefighters were pulled off the structure when the flames exploded and it appeared imminent that a power line would fall. Firefighters went into a defensive mode to limit the spread of the blaze.
Temperatures fell to the single digits Friday night and hampered the firefighting effort. The only water supply was from a nearby pond covered by a skin of ice. Firefighters said water in their hoses was freezing.
Seven engines and 33 firefighters responded to the scene. Mutual aid was supplied by the Aspen and Snowmass Village fire departments. The Pitkin County Road and Bridge Department and Eagle County Sheriff’s Office also responded to the incident.
Two Rivers Bar and Cafe sent food and coffee to the scene Friday night and Saturday morning. The restaurant is also feeding the displaced residents through the weekend, according to American Red Cross spokeswoman Yanna Blacy. The Basalt restaurant is also collecting clothing, toys and cash donations for the displaced residents. An account for financial donations for the fire victims is also being established at Vectra Banks in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Blacy said there were 12 children among the 33 residents who lost their homes. The Red Cross is trying to secure both temporary and permanent housing for the displaced residents.
In addition to the structure loss of an estimated $3 million, most of the residents’ personal belongings were lost.
“All but two [units] basically lost everything,” Thompson said.
Residents Randy Reimer and Joey LaColla were among those who lost everything. They were watching television when Lawry banged on their door. They said it wasn’t the kind of situation that made them think they needed to pack up their belongings because a catastrophic fire didn’t seem imminent. Then the flames jumped out of the hole cut in the roof.
“Once the oxygen got to it, it was like a firecracker,” Reimer said.
LaColla said it soon became apparent their apartment was going to be destroyed.
“I said, ‘I can’t stay here and watch this anymore,'” he said.
The only personal belongings they took with them were the clothes on their back. LaColla was wearing his work outfit from Aspen Square condominiums, where he works maintenance. LaColla, who recently turned 65, said he lost a lot of momentos in the fire.
“Certain things that mean stuff to me,” he said. Both men lost outdoor gear, such as skis, fly rods and camping equipment.
For Reimer, it was the second time in about a decade that he lost everything. He was also a victim of the Sunnydale fire farther up the Fryingpan River Valley.
Both men were remarkably composed when they checked out the destroyed building Saturday morning. They said they stayed with a friend in El Jebel the night before. Lawry offered them shelter in a cabin she owns close to the apartment complex.
“It’s not like we don’t have a roof over our heads,” Reimer said. He concluded by noting, “The old saying is, ‘S— happens.'”
Lawry was able to find some silver lining in the incident.
“Nobody got hurt,” she said. A person who works with her kicked in the door of an apartment and rescued a small, frightened dog before it perished in the fire. A distraught little girl’s turtle was also saved, Lawry said.
The majority of the firefighters were able to leave by 3 a.m., although a crew stayed on the scene overnight. Shortly after many of the Basalt firefighters got settled in their homes, they were paged at 6:35 a.m. Saturday for another blaze. A barn on a property near the intersection of East and West Sopris Creek roads caught on fire. The address was 101 Vagneur Lane. The property owners became aware of the fire and were able to remove most of their goats from the barn.
“They lost one goat in there,” said Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Brian Benton.
A plume of smoke from the fire was visible throughout the midvalley at dawn. Initial responders could see flames leaping from the wood-frame and sheet metal building as they rounded a curve at the former Fender Ranch.
The firefighting effort was relatively straightforward, Benton said. Flames were kept from the nearby house and propane tank. The barn, roughly 30 feet by 30 feet with a small addition, was a total loss.
The cause is under investigation. There had been a heat lamp in the barn for the goats, according to Benton.
“There was nothing suspicious at all,” he said.
The two fires meant 2011 is ending similarly to the way it began for the Basalt Fire Department. Firefighters were called to four fires in a 10-day stretch between Jan. 3 and 12. The Sterkerville apartment building incident was the first major structure fire since January.