On The Job — Las Vegas

In what can best be described as a fire storm, the fire departments of the Las Vegas Valley in Nevada were left breathless as they dealt with a rash of multiple-alarm fires in a 42-day span in 1995.

Las Vegas truly is “a city that never sleeps.” With a population of over 1 million, it is also a city that is accustomed to dealing with calls for help. The fire departments of the Valley are no strangers to large, multiple-alarm fires. Even the busiest department, however, would have to feel a bit winded trying to keep up with the hectic pace the fire storm demanded. What’s ironic is that the smallest blaze in the fire storm proved to be the most tragic, claiming the life of a 4-year-old boy.

Fire protection in the Valley is provided by the Clark County Fire Department, which covers the Strip and outlying areas; the Las Vegas Fire Department, which covers the downtown area and the city proper; the North Las Vegas Fire Department; the Henderson Fire Department; the Boulder City Fire Department; and the Nellis Air Force Base Fire Department.

Firefighters responded to nine major fires in that 42-day period. The following is a recap of those incidents.

  • Aug. 7 — St. Charleston Apartments (four alarms). The fire storm hit with no warning. At 2:40 P.M., the Las Vegas Fire Department dispatch office received a call reporting a fire on the roof of building 13 at the St. Charleston Apartments. On arrival, Las Vegas Engine 6 found heavy smoke coming from the roof of the two-story apartment building and called a second alarm. Less than two minutes later, the fire was showing through the roof of the 24-unit structure.

    Units from the Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments scrambled to get ahead of the blaze to no avail. The fire continued to rip through the attic, eating away at the roof. A third alarm was called at 3:07. The fire wasn’t the only enemy the firefighters faced that day — in addition to the fast-moving flames, crews had to deal with 15 mph winds that were gusting to 30 mph as well as temperatures peaking at 109 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Because of the heat and other adverse conditions, a fourth alarm was called at 3:26. Las Vegas Fire Chief Clell West said one reason the fourth alarm was sounded was to keep firefighting crews moving in and out of the building in short shifts.

    “This heat gets you and you don’t even realize it,” West said. “You don’t really feel it until it’s too late.”

    The blaze, accidentally caused by roofers, sent one firefighter to the hospital for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. A female resident was sent to the hospital with smoke inhalation and chest pains. Twenty-one families were displaced by the fire.

  • Aug. 23 — Carpet warehouse (two alarms). At 10:42 P.M., the Clark County Fire Department was dispatched to a report of a fire in a carpet warehouse. Police on the scene reported that the building was “going up good” before the arrival of the first fire company.

    On arrival, Clark County Engine 17 reported a long commercial complex was fully involved; a second alarm was issued less than two minutes later. The fire, believed to be arson, consumed $800,000 in property, went through a second alarm and special call for two additional engines but would be only a distant memory in just two days.

  • Aug. 25 — Rio Hotel (three alarms). The Clark County Fire Department received a report of a fire in the All American Bar and Grill inside the Rio Hotel and Casino at 11:47 A.M. Clark County Engine 15 arrived and had smoke showing from a vent. As smoke began to spread throughout much of the first floor, a massive evacuation of the hotel — about 4,000 people — was started. A second alarm was called at 11:50.

    An exhaust fan had stopped functioning, allowing heat to build. This heat started a fire in the duct work that quickly spread through an attic area. A third alarm was called for at 12:08. This fire, the third in the storm, was declared under control at 1:31 P.M. Thirty-six units from the Clark County and Las Vegas fire departments responded to this blaze, which caused about $150,000 in damage and sent three people to area hospitals.

    The biggest challenge faced by crews on the scene was the evacuation of the complex. Evacuating a hotel/casino in Las Vegas presents special challenges not present in other cities. The biggest of those problems is that visitors don’t want to leave — some have large numbers of credits in slot machines and don’t want to lose them; others simply don’t want to give up their favorite machines.

    “A lot of people didn’t want to go out. They didn’t want to leave their machines,” said one guest, Edward Janese of Niagara Falls, NY. “I saw some woman who had hit four-of-a-kind and she wanted to get paid for it.”

  • Aug. 28 — Hillshire Drive (four alarms). The fourth fire would, in its own way, be a first — the first in a series of blazes at construction sites.

    At 2:36 P.M., a huge, upscale planned community under construction at 1550 Hillshire Drive (known to firefighters as “stick village number one”) went up in a ball of fire. Las Vegas city fire crews were immediately dispatched but the huge column of smoke from the site prompted a second alarm to be called even before the first unit reached the scene. Las Vegas Engine 7 arrived to find two unfinished large condominium buildings fully engulfed in flames.

    The fire quickly grew and started to jump to other buildings in the posh neighborhood that also were under construction. Flames ran through the construction site, fed by the bare wood. The third alarm was sounded at 2:50, less than 20 minutes after the initial alarm. Even after the call for the third alarm, the fire continued to burn so intensely that radiated heat was melting golf balls on the nearby fairway. (Imagine having to take a penalty stroke because your golf ball melted into a puddle!) A call for a fourth alarm was made at 3:22.

    “This thing was eating us alive,” said West. “We had 40-foot flames coming from the second story of one of the buildings and it was pretty hot.”

    Maneuvering around construction equipment, supplies and ditches was a major problem for the more than 80 firefighters and support crews attempting to position two dozen vehicles into place, the chief added.

    The fire was declared out at 5:02 P.M. All told, 18 condominium units were lost in the blaze for a total loss of $2 million. As the firefighters began overhaul, they believed it would be some time before they had to deal with a fire of that magnitude again. Firefighter Darell Aronson said, “This is the worst fire this year.” That statement, however, would be challenged in a mere 14 days.

    The Valley firefighters made it out of August and into September, confident that September couldn’t possibly be as bad as August had been. On the 11th day of September, a column of smoke that could be seen across the Valley proved them wrong.

  • Sept. 11 — Cielo Vista (three alarms). At 7:40 A.M., the Las Vegas Fire Department was called to another construction-site fire. A plumber sweating pipes had touched off a blaze that would ultimately do at least $850,000 in damage.

    As with the previous fire, a second alarm was called right out of the chute — three minutes after the initial alarm. A third alarm followed at 7:49. City Engine 7 found five units under construction fully involved in fire.

    No one in the Las Vegas Valley who could see the column of smoke could believe that there was another major fire but members of the 20-plus units who responded to the fire saw it with their own eyes. This fire consumed or damaged 14 homes, including the construction trailer with all the files on the project.

  • Sept. 11 — 49er Hotel and Casino (two alarms). The next fire in line wouldn’t wait. This fire broke out less than an hour after the blaze at the construction site. In a small rural area called Searchlight, Clark County volunteer firefighters received a call for a fire in the 49er Hotel and Casino.

    The 49er, a favorite of Searchlight locals, would be destroyed by a fire that was caused by an electrical malfunction. In a stroke of luck, the 49er was closed when the fire broke out and no one was injured. The fire destroyed $700,000 in property and was battled by 19 units from Searchlight, the Clark County Fire Department, Laughlin and Bullhead City.

  • Sept. 13 — Mini Mobil II (one alarm). Two days later, the most tragic fire in the storm would strike. At 4:10 A.M., Clark County and North Las Vegas fire companies received a report of a fire in a mobile home. County Engine 23 arrived to find a mobile home engulfed in flames. The fire moved quickly and took the life of a 4-year-old boy before he could get out.

    The fire, which started under the bunk bed in which the family’s three children were sleeping, was attributed to inadequate wiring. The rest of the family escaped unharmed but the mother, who was nine months pregnant at the time, was transported to a hospital for observation.

  • Sept. 17 — Palos Verdes (three alarms). Just when it seemed to be over (after all, there hadn’t been a major fire for four days), the Valley skies were again darkened by a plume of smoke. A mini-storage facility under construction was burning.

    Response times were like lightning, as the 2:16 P.M. fire was less than 200 yards from the largest fire station in the state, Clark County Fire Department Station 18. The fact that the site was fully involved by the time the first unit got on scene was a testament to the fury of this fire.

    The fire, burning just behind a small commercial complex, was quickly consuming the construction site and threatening surrounding exposures. A second alarm was called for just three minutes after the initial dispatch. The fire spread to the commercial complex so quickly that the second-alarm resources were used up, so a third alarm was sounded at 2:29.

    After the fire was extinguished, Clark County fire investigators utilized a highly specialized piece of equipment to help them determine the cause of the blaze. Josie the arson dog was called in to search the ruins for the scent of accelerants. Josie found a number of spots and the fire was determined to be arson.

    The fire, which did over $470,000 in damage, sent two county firefighters to the hospital. One was treated for heat exhaustion and the other was injured when he fell five feet into a hidden elevator shaft.

    But that was not the end of the fire storm. There was one final blaze to deal with, less than 24 hours after the previous one.

  • Sept. 18 — Desert Inn Road (three alarms). Fire broke out at 1:56 P.M. in a 42-unit apartment building that was scheduled for demolition. This fire, just a few blocks from the fire the day before, was racing from one end of the complex to the other. Debris and the gutting process in preparation for the demolition added to the intensity of the fire. A second alarm was called for at 2:04 and a third alarm at 2:33.

    The intensity of the fire and the fact that the building was due to be demolished kept the attack on this fire mostly exterior. Two firefighters were injured fighting the fire. One was treated for a puncture wound to his hand and the other was taken to a hospital and treated for heat exhaustion. Because the building was being town down, there was no dollar loss from this fire.

Paul Youdelis is a captain in the Clark County, NV, Fire Department. He has been in firefighting for 17 years, eight of them with Clark County.