Two Star Valley house fires underscored some lifesaving lessons for Rim Country homeowners.
The quick response of fire crews to one house fire on Saturday on Moonlight Drive and a second on Monday on Dealer’s Choice Road saved both houses and prevented any injuries.
On Saturday at 6:49 p.m., neglected chimney screens and a shake shingle roof nearly produced a disaster on Moonlight Drive, except for an alert neighbor.
“I asked them how long it had been since they had checked the bonnet on the chimney and they said it had been many years,” said Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch. “It had just rotted out, so sparks from the fireplace landed on the shingles. Firefighters really don’t like those shake shingle roofs. The guy said, ‘I’ve been meaning to put a metal roof on it for years, but it’s too expensive.”
Hellsgate ended up with five engines and two water tenders on the scene. Fortunately, the first engine arrived within 3.5 minutes and put up a spray of water that limited the damage to a six-foot by 10-foot portion of the roof, with very little interior damage. Hatch put the damage at about $5,000.
The homeowners on Dealer’s Choice Road weren’t so lucky. On Monday, the homeowner returned from doing errands to find his locked-up home full of smoke. He noticed smoke coming out of the chimney and the swamp cooler and from under the eves. Fortunately, the homeowner had the lifesaving presence of mind to call 9-1-1 instead of opening the front door. The first crews arrived to find the windows black with soot and smoke and all the windows and doors tightly shut.
Hatch said the firefighters recognized the signs of an intense fire temporarily stalled by the lack of oxygen in the sealed house. Such a fire can heat the interior to 2,000 degrees, while generating intense smoke and few flames.
“We knew that’s what we had,” said Hatch. “All the windows were blacked out, which means you have this very, very hot, slow-burning fire. You don’t want to open that door until you make sure you’re not going to get a backdraft. So you get down very low and kick in the door and be ready when the fire flares.”
Hatch speculated the fire had started in electrical wiring in a center room of the house with computers and related equipment, but investigators have not yet settled on a cause.
Fire crews had the fire out within eight minutes of turning on the hoses and prevented major structural damage except where the fire started. However, the smoke and the intense heat caused extensive damage throughout the house and melted anything made of plastic. Hatch guessed the damage will total at least $40,000.
That Monday fire drew about 25 firefighters and a dozen fire trucks and water tenders from Hellsgate, Houston Mesa and Payson fire departments. Hatch said the Payson Fire Department sent two or three trucks with eight full-time firefighters, and Houston Mesa sent five firefighters on two trucks. Hellsgate dispatched about 12 firefighters, three of them full-timers and the rest volunteers.
Hatch said the mutual aid agreements with neighboring fire departments have continued to provide enough manpower in emergencies, despite Hellsgate’s budget struggles.
“We were lucky on both of these,” said Hatch. “We’re cutting to the core, but everyone is stepping up to the plate. These guys don’t do it for the money: They do it because we love helping people.”