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As Engine 32 rolled out of the Pullman, WA, Fire Department’s north-area station on Sunday, July 14, 2013, Senior Firefighter Andrew Howell was striking a second and third alarm within seconds of the of the first page at 3:17 A.M.
“We could see the glow before we left the station,” Howell recalled.
Pullman Police Sergeant Dan Dornes radioed to Whitcom, the 9-1-1 center for the area, “Tell Fire, flames are at least 100 feet in the air.” And then Dornes reminded another police officer, Wade Winegardner, to make sure his car and body cameras were activated.
That’s the way one of the biggest fires to hit Pullman began at the Grove Apartment complex, on Northeast Brandi Way, just off of Terre View Drive. During the fire, police officers and firefighters worked separately, but made the effort to keep each other informed.
For the week that followed, police and fire personnel worked together and that collaboration resulted in the arrest of the alleged arsonist just seven days after four apartment buildings under construction, with a value in excess of $13 million, were destroyed. Both departments also used the resources of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), an accelerant dog from the Spokane Valley Fire Department, the State Fire Marshal’s office and laser mapping by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.
Fire Captain Don Foster was in charge of Pumper-Ladder 31 as he left the downtown station that morning. “We could see the large candle in the sky. We knew it was new construction and we knew the walls hadn’t been sealed. It was kindling wood.” There were eight apartment units being constructed by College Crest of North Carolina in a site that resembled a bowl. There was a retaining wall of about 50 feet to the south of the complex and on the other side of that mound, was the fully occupied Steptoe Village apartment complex owned by Washington State University (WSU).
To the north, there was a 30-foot wall along Terre View and another 40-foot earthen wall to the east. On the other side of that wall was the fully occupied Boulder Creek apartment complex.
As the first engine came in from the west, Howell said he could see at first one building fully involved. He told Firefighter Paul Heebink to lay a line and he would do a 360-degree size-up. It was then that Howell said the fire was jumping between buildings, so he began to look at this fire as he would a large wildfire, but he said he thought, “at least here we have water.” After all, there were two hydrants on the property near the engine, but the first one they took had only a trickle of water. The second one was also dry. Investigators found later that construction crews had placed black garbage bags over the dead hydrants that were supposed to come online the next day. The intense heat melted the bags within seconds.
The deck gun drained the engine’s water supply and without a working hydrant, the crews had to reposition and then laid 500 feet of five-inch hose to a working hydrant near the property.
About the same time as crews were hitting the fire with deck guns and 2½-inch lines, Winegardner was evacuating residents from the Boulder Creek apartment and soliciting help from residents to make sure other occupants were out of their units. He and Fire Chief Mike Heston, from the command post on Terre View, could see that the walls on the occupied apartments were off-gassing and starting to smoke. Foster then moved the pumper-ladder into position at Boulder Creek to protect the residents and the structure. Foster dispatched two firefighters with a thermal imaging camera to see if there was any actual fire at Boulder Creek since the sides were smoking. Fortunately, there was none. Another engine, manned by Pullman reserve firefighters, took a position on a construction road between the fire and Boulder Creek apartments, poured water on the fire and cooled down the threat to the occupied units.