By Alex Bridges
WINCHESTER -- A child playing with a lighter unintentionally caused an apartment fire that forced 20 families from their homes on Friday, city officials ruled.
The fire broke out shortly before 11:45 a.m. in a section of Bellview Apartments at 64 Bellview Ave. near South Loudoun Street. The blaze damaged 16 units in one of the buildings of the apartment complex.
The Winchester Police Department and the Fire Marshal's Office investigated the incident. By early Friday evening they had determined the cause of the fire: a 4-year-old child playing with a lighter, according to a city press release.
The fire started near a window in the second-story apartment and spread quickly to neighboring apartments through a common attic space with help from a northern wind, according to the release.
A smoke alarm in the apartment alerted the rest of the family members, who were asleep at the time the fire started. Officials credited the functional smoke alarm for allowing the family and other residents to escape the building unharmed.
Witnesses recalled seeing flames and smoke rising from the roof of the building. The fire left a gaping hole in the roof of an apartment toward the middle of the building.
Chief Allen Baldwin of the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department said no residents reported injuries but two firefighters suffered minor injuries and went to Winchester Medical Center for treatment.
Local chapters of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army responded to the scene to help the victims
The city turned the War Memorial Building in Jim Barnett Park into a temporary emergency shelter for the victims, according to an announcement from the city. Red Cross volunteer Sandy Webster said the property management company for the apartment complex found temporary shelter for seven of the 20 families displaced by the fire. But that still left 13 families without a place to stay, Webster noted.
As firefighters sprayed water on the roof, Jessica Dewey and many other residents stood with friends and relatives across the street from the apartments waiting on assistance from relief workers.
Dewey, who lives with her fiancé and four children in an end apartment unit, said she was on her way home when the fire started.
"The only thing I know is it's damaged," Dewey said. "The fire got the backside and I was told my house is flooded."
"They had to evacuate every building because it's an older structure," said Dewey's grandmother, Joyce Cleveland. "They had to tear up the whole back end of theirs on the backside."
Nearby resident Tammy Barr walked down to the scene to offer assistance to the victims.
"It was still fully engulfed when I got here," Barr said.
Crews with the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department were dispatched to the structure fire at 11:44 a.m., Baldwin said. Dispatchers received several 911 calls reporting the fire. at 64 Bellview Ave.
"Units arrived to find smoke and fire showing from that unit on the second floor," Baldwin said.
Crews began to attack the blaze and conducted search and rescue operations to look for any people inside the building. Officials on the scene called for additional crews and mutual aid from Frederick County and neighboring jurisdictions responded.
Firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze from the outside. Then other crew members went inside the building to attack the fire, Baldwin said.
"That's really what kept it from going to the adjoining units," Baldwin said.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control in about an hour and limited much of the fire damage to the apartment unit where the incident began, Baldwin said. The chief noted that other apartments likely sustained water damage during the firefighters' efforts to put out the blaze and keep the flames from spreading.
Families affected by the fire may call Lorrie Rhoton with the American Red Cross at 664-2616 or the Winchester Red Cross at 662-5412 if they should have any questions.
Those interested in making donations to the families may contact Cheryl Green at the Salvation Army at 662-4777, ext. 25.
Winchester Fire and Rescue staff plan to conduct a smoke alarm canvassing effort in the Bellview Avenue area on Saturday to offer smoke alarm checks and free batteries. Visit the National Fire Protection Association's website at http://tinyurl.com/pkbzzcx for more information.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org