Apartment residents delay in calling fire department

Some residents at Colinas Ranch apartment complex off Walnut Hill Lane were alarmed at a burning smell in their units on Thursday afternoon, August 3, but a maintenance worker reassured them the smell was coming from a heater in a nearby apartment. Hours later, however,a resident saw smoke and took action.

Anjelica Villalba stopped briefly at her father’s apartment around 5pm when she smelled something burning in his apartment. Worried, she called her building’s property manager, who sent a maintenance worker to investigate.

“He told me the only reason we’re going to smell something burning is because he turned on the heater in the apartment behind us,” Villalba said.

She left the apartment again and when she returned two hours later, the burning smell was stronger.

While talking to neighbors about the suspicious smell, the building’s smoke alarms activated. Villalba rushed to her unit to find everything blanketed by smoke. Finally, she called the fire department.

“I would recommend any time anybody smells smoke, if they investigate it on their own and can’t figure out where the smell is coming from, they should contact the fire department,” said Irving Fire Department Fire Marshal Derek Austin.

Firefighters rushed to the two-alarm fire and used a thermal energy camera to find high temperature locations in a wall on the second floor. They knocked out the sheet rock at those locations and discovered a fire.

Minimal damage was done to the property and the fire was confined to within the wall and the subfloor of the second floor apartment.

After the fire was extinguished, firefighters called on investigators to uncover how the fire started. They discovered the fire started inside the wall or inside the subfloor/second floor apartment underneath the tub. Their report indicated if any kind of work had been done to unintentionally start the fire, it may have been sweating pipe for plumbing.

“I’m not really sure how heaters would get involved because heater systems are electric,” Austin said.

Firefighters encourage individuals to call their department even if they smell smoke or something suspicious. The Irving Fire Department runs “investigation calls” where they send a fire engine to visit a site and explore whether more resources or manpower are needed.

“Somebody has to contact the fire department,” Austin said. “We don’t know unless somebody calls us.”

According to Villalba, after the fire was extinguished the property manager asked five families to leave their units from Thursday, August 3rd through Tuesday, August 8th while they worked on clearing the apartments of the smell of smoke.

“All of our clothes smell burned,” Villalba said. “We had to find somewhere else to go for almost a week. They didn’t really do anything about it but just clean out the vents, patch up a hole and then put in a ceiling fan. Now we’re staying in the apartment and it still smells so much like smoke. To me, I think it’s dangerous because that kind of smoke can actually harm somebody.”

“The smell of a structure fire and the smoke damage has a very pungent odor,” Austin said. “Even if you were to show up on the fire scene and stand within 50 feet of the building after the fire, you’ll go back to your apartment and smell like the smoke.”

Austin said the reason the property could have asked specific residents to evacuate for a week was in order to clear residual smoke damage, clear the sheet rock, or bring in a specialized company to clean the apartment to remove the smoke damage.

Property managers were not available for comment.

Certain occupancies in the city have fire alarm systems that will notify the fire department upon activation. Generally properties that have these fire alarms installed include commercial buildings and higher hazard buildings including ones with an H-5 occupancy (businesses that involve producing or storing very flammable or toxic materials).

Apartment complexes are not required to have these immediate fire alarm-notification systems installed. Until they do, Assistant Chief of Operations at Irving’s Fire Department Jack Taylor advises to call the fire department if you feel unsure about a situation.

“If you have a sense that there is a danger or a fire, regardless of what the property manager asks you do to, it’s safe to call 911 and let the fire department come check that out for sure,” Taylor said. “If you smell smoke, if you see something that’s a hazard and if they tell you they’re merely working on heating equipment and if you don’t feel comfortable, I would always suggest calling 911 and letting professionals get there and look at it and determine if there’s a real emergency or not.”

About the Author

Joe Snell

Joe Snell studied film and business law at the University of Southern California. He has worked for a number of film and television companies including 21st Century Fox, Starz Entertainment, Creative Artists Agency, and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.