by Ann Fowler
An accidental fire caused by improperly discarded smoking material destroyed both sides of a duplex in the Westcreek neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, July 26. Two of the Cana Cove residents were treated for smoke inhalation, one for a pre-existing medical condition, and another for a dog bite as her frightened dog fought evacuation.
Loss to the structure is estimated at $200,000, with another $50,000 loss for the contents.
Amy Smith lived in the “A” unit with her mom Debbie and daughter Elise. At about 4:30 p.m. she heard a loud bang from the adjoining unit, followed by a scream. Seconds later her neighbor, Jeremy Rish, was pounding on her door, begging for a fire extinguisher to stem the blaze that was burning in his garage. She did not have one. By then flames were shooting out of the garage.
Recalled Smith, “I ran inside to tell my mom and daughter to get out and I called 911. I think the firemen got there pretty quickly, but it seemed like a long time when you know your house is on fire. I know I saw some of the firefighting, but I honestly do not remember much.”
Unable to stop the fire, Rish ran to the duplex next door. Resident Laurie Johnson said, “My son, Landon, and I were napping upstairs and I heard someone pounding on the door. When I came downstairs, my neighbor Jeremy was sitting on my porch, and he said his house was on fire. I looked over at the house and saw flames shooting out of the garage.”
Her cousin, Logan Estep, lives across the street. He ran over and, after seeing that they were okay, took the youngster while Johnson grabbed a few things from her home. She said, “The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see my car from the front door. I grabbed my shoes, purse and phone and I went across the street to their place.” Johnson could only watch and wait, hoping the fire didn’t spread.
Two neighbors grabbed garden hoses, attempting to contain the blaze until AFD firefighters arrived minutes later.
Rish and a woman that neighbors identified as his girlfriend sat in shock on a neighbor’s lawn, dully watching as flames ate through their home. Although classified as a first-alarm fire, several Austin Fire Department fire engines arrived, as did one from the Oak Hill Fire Department that responded through the Automatic Aid response.
Explained Oak Hill Fire Chief Jeffrey J. Wittig, “They were there for about an hour and were filling the role of the rapid intervention crew—a team of firefighters designed to be standing by ready to make a rescue should a firefighter become trapped, disoriented or otherwise incapacitated.”
Anxious neighbors watched, thankful for the recent rains and little or no wind. Perhaps one other stroke of luck was the greenbelt entrance next to the Rish residence. While other buildings on the street stand about 12 feet apart with wooden fences in between, the utility vehicle access to the greenbelt meant nearly twice the distance to the next unit— and no wooden fence for fuel.
Still, firefighters hosed down the tall grass in the greenbelt behind the burning unit, denying the fire that added source of fuel. Once the fire was extinguished, firefighters checked the monoxide levels in Johnson’s duplex to ensure that the air quality was safe.
As the sky deepened into evening, one by one the fire engines left. But one engine stayed behind, the firefighters keeping watch overnight for hot spots. After the drama, anxiety and sadness of the afternoon, several residents commented on the comfort they found in the hum of the fire engine’s generator during the night, knowing Austin Fire Department personnel were standing watch.
An American Red Cross representative was on site within minutes. According to Bristel Bowen, Regional Director of Communications of the Central Texas Region of the American Red Cross, “In the case of the fire on Cana Cove, a Red Cross volunteer actually lived on the same street and saw the fire, so she checked with the fire department and they confirmed that we should send volunteers to help the affected families. We then dispatched a Disaster Action Team (DAT) responder to meet with the families. He also lived close by and was able to arrive very quickly.”
The American Red Cross provided comfort kits and financial assistance for lodging, food and clothing to the two affected families.
Added Bowen, “This response is a good example of why we work so hard to recruit and train volunteers all across the Central Texas area, because it empowers neighbors to help their neighbors and allows help to arrive quickly for those who need it.”
In that same vein of “neighbors helping neighbors,” two board members of the Westcreek Neighborhood Association (WNA) went to the skeletal remains of the duplex Sunday morning to offer help.
WNA president Jennifer Voss said, “One of the residents was there with the duplex owners and they were very grateful for all the neighbors who were coming by and trying to help. They were very welcoming to us and truly appreciated our offer to assist them.”
Voss said the immediate concern was to help the victims with basic needs: lodging, food, clothing, toiletries. To that end, they are collecting money and gift cards. Emails were sent out to those in the neighborhood to solicit help. “As we find out more family needs (clothing sizes, home items, etc.), we will let neighbors know how they can help in those ways,” she said.
The WNA board will coordinate the donations, and have reached out to local businesses. Arbor Trail businesses that have made donations include: Healthy Pet, Double Dave’s Pizza, Jersey Mike’s Subs.
Friends have set up a GoFundMe account for Amy Smith’s family at the Smith Fire Recovery Fund.
The Gazette has reached out to Jeremy Rish but we have yet to receive a response on what assistance, if any, his family may need or want.
Amy Smith said, “The neighborhood response has been unbelievable! It is amazing that so many people want to help out and don’t even know us personally.”
She said she has learned something from the experience: “You really don’t have time to try to save anything prior to running out. The most important things to save are those that are living. I am so blessed that my family and our two dogs made it out. Also, I have learned to get renters insurance from now on—you never know when you will need it!”
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