Cigarette butts caused Elma apartment fire

Fire investigators have concluded that a fire at an Elma apartment building last week started in a metal can containing cigarette butts.

“We were able to determine that the fire was accidental in nature,” Elma Police Chief Jeff Troumbley said. “It apparently occurred on the third floor balcony. Apparently, the occupants of that apartment smoked cigarettes on that balcony and used a metal can as their butt can, and somehow the can got heated enough to catch the building on fire.”

The fire on April 25 may have started on the exterior siding near the stairwell, Troumbley noted, where there were no alarms or sprinklers. There will be no criminal charges.

The fire left about 15 people homeless, but some were allowed to enter their apartments Tuesday to gather what few possessions escaped the blaze.

Every day since the fire, Austin Powell has seen the building across the street burning in his mind over and over again. He found blankets to keep his neighbors warm the morning of the fire, and since then he’s been working on efforts to help the displaced families.

“This is a close-knit community,” Powell said. “It’s small. It’s not like Olympia and Tacoma where you have a lot of outside resources and help.”

For now, the main place he’s set up for people to contribute is a donation box at Anytime Fitness in Elma, where he works as a personal trainer.

Powell remembers watching the fire after he helped move people out of the building, but didn’t hear any alarms.

“It was silent, which was weird. The only thing you heard was the building burning,” he said.

“They did work,” Troumbley said of the alarms and sprinklers. “However, because of the nature of the fire and how it developed, all the alarms and sprinklers are inside the apartment, and this initiated on the outside of the apartment, so it took longer for them to be initiated.”

Because it started on the exterior of the building and moved to the stairwell, another area without alarms or sprinklers, by the time it reached areas with such devices, it was too big for sprinklers to stop.

Elma Building Inspector Bill Sidor said residents of the first and second floors of the building were allowed in after debris was cleared Tuesday, but third-floor residents will have to wait until the insurance company gives the OK.

“The third floor has no railings going up the stairs or the landings, and there’s still a portion of the roof that is burned and I’m not sure how secure that is,” he explained.

Powell said he hopes people will show what sets a small town apart by reaching out to the families.

“They don’t have anything,” he said. “Any help is good, whether it’s a sweatshirt or something small or something big.”

Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached by calling 537-3933 or by email: