Snowmass house fire a close call

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times
Snowmass firefighters work on Jan. 23 to extinguish flames that ignited in the space between a home's first and second floors under this stand-alone fireplace. The fire, which didn't cause extensive damage to the Snowmass Village residence, almost sparked a tragedy because there were no working smoke detectors in the house at the time.
Courtesy photo |

A structure fire in Snowmass Village last week almost turned tragic because the home, built in 1968, had no working smoke detectors when the flames ignited.

Firefighters responded to calls of a suspected electrical fire on Meadow Road early in the morning of Jan. 24. The house was being rented by a vacationing family of eight who were awoken by the sound of carbon-monoxide detectors at around 3:30 a.m., said Snowmass Fire Marshal John Mele.

Smoke was seeping out of various places in the house and it wasn’t immediately obvious where the fire was, Mele said. The firefighters, led by Captain Jason Hutter, continued to investigate and they located the flames in the space between the first and second floor, under an upstairs fireplace, which the family had used the night before.

Mele, who conducted a fire investigation after the incident, thinks that over time, the brick mortar underneath the fireplace had been cracking and decaying, allowing embers to fall through. Flames might have ignited in the space before, but become choked by the lack of oxygen. However, ashes were accumulating and slowly deteriorating the plywood in the space, making it more combustible.

“This just happened to be that time,” Mele said.

When firefighters arrived, carbon-monoxide levels were at 116 parts per million. The Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District evacuates homes when levels surpass 10 parts per million, Mele said.

There were five carbon-monoxide detectors throughout the house, Mele said. There also was one smoke detector on the main floor, but it didn’t have a battery in it at the time.

Damage to the home was not extensive, though it could have been much worse had the fire spread, Mele said. The carbon-monoxide detectors may have saved the lives of the home’s guests as well as the structure from much further damage, but a smoke detector would have activated sooner and long before that much carbon-monoxide gathered, he said.

“I think it’s fortunate that they had the carbon-monoxide detectors,” Mele said. “We have to get the word out that carbon-monoxide detectors do not take the place of smoke detectors.”

The Fire Department’s medical staff evaluated the visitors for carbon-monoxide poisoning. They weren’t showing any symptoms and refused transportation to the hospital, Mele said.

Snowmass firefighters returned to the home the following day to install two brand-new smoke detectors, donated by Aspen nonprofit Zach Burn Foundation.