Cause of 9th Street fire puzzles fire fighters

January 25, 2012

Firefighters faced a burning floor and a basement of unknown depth when they answered a call to a smoke-filled house on Saturday night.

"It's a strange one," Fire Chief Devon Wells said.

Crews responded to a structure fire at 410 Ninth St. and operated on-scene for more than four hours bringing the single-family home fire under control. The cause of the fire is still unknown; except for damage to one bedroom, the fire was kept to the floor and below.

Wells said a neighbor saw the smoke and pounded on the door, finding no one home.

"The fire had been burning long enough, a couple of hours minimum, to where it was all the way through the floor," Wells said.

He said, "The fire burned between two floor joists across the house in the floor joist space, and we could not find an ignition source."

When crews arrived, they found light smoke coming from all of the eaves and roof vents. Crews made entry to suppress the fire but found the floor burned through, making interior operations difficult. Once the fire was knocked down from the outside and smoke conditions cleared, crews re-entered the home. No one was home at the time of the incident and no injuries were reported from the fire crews. The family's two dogs escaped through a pet door, but a pet cat died in the fire.

The home is owned by Nathan and Dan Salter, and occupied by Robert and Heather Bird, who left for work at 6 a.m.

Hood River was assisted by crews from West Side, Pine Grove and Cascade Locks Fire agencies.

Wells said the 1950s-era home was built with lathe and plaster walls, and its structural strength was one of the reasons it did so well in the fire.

"The structure itself is not destroyed; mainly the center floor section is; but the construction kept it contained," Wells said.

Firefighters found the hole in the floor but couldn't feel the bottom, and did not proceed into the house because they didn't want to fall through, according to Wells.

"We weren't sure if it was 10-foot basement or 2-foot crawlspace," Wells said, adding that the home's ground-level windows made it look like it had a daylight basement, but the crawlspace turned out to be less than 3 feet.

"It threw them for a loop. It's an unusual crawl space," Wells said.

Firefighters attacked the fire from outside, ventilating it, and then placed ladders across the floor to work inside the house.

Wells and Fire Marshal Peter Mackwell spent two hours Sunday trying to find the source.

"The insurance fire investigator might see something we didn't see," Wells said.

Adding to the mystery is that the furnace and wood stove were apparently not the culprits, according to Wells, and the only wiring underneath the floor were cable TV, CAT5 wire and telephone wire, none of which carry enough electricity to do any damage, he said.

"There's a gas line under the heaviest part of the fire, but there is no indication of an ignition," Wells said.

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