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Fatal Apartment Fire in Arcata 

click to enlarge Firefighters at the scene of a fatal apartment fire in the 100 block of Samoa Boulevard on Feb. 2.

Photo courtesy of the Arcata Fire Department

Firefighters at the scene of a fatal apartment fire in the 100 block of Samoa Boulevard on Feb. 2.

One person was found dead after in an apartment fire that broke out in Arcata before dawn on Feb. 2, according to Police Chief Brian Ahearn.

"Arcata Fire located one body inside of a ground floor unit," Ahearn said. "The person was deceased."

The cause of the fire, which broke out just before 5:30 a.m. in a large complex of apartments in the 100 block of Samoa Boulevard near Crescent Way, remains under investigation. The fire began in one of the green and white complex's rear units, which faced away from Samoa Boulevard, abutting a small creek and a children's play structure.

According to the incident commander speaking over the scanner about just after 6 a.m., two apartment units were badly damaged and there was slight damage to a third.

"Be advised we have had one person jump from the second floor," the dispatcher relayed to firefighters about 5:30 a.m.

"Heavy fire showing through the roof," a firefighter said over the scanner a minute later.

Erick and Amanda Cordova, who live in an adjacent unit, said they were awakened at about 5:20 a.m. by their hound dog's howling. They got up to let the dog out but soon heard an explosion.

"My husband ran outside," Amanda Cordova said. "He saw flames and he came back in and told me to call 911 and take my 5-year-old daughter and get out. ... Then he knocked on doors in his underwear telling people to get out."

An apartment adjacent to the one in which the fire started had two young children sleeping inside, she said, adding that when the people living there answered the door to her knocking husband, smoke was already coming through the vents from the neighboring unit.

Arcata Fire Department Battalion Chief Curt Watkins said the apartment where the fire broke out had smoke alarms, though the department was unable to determine if they were working. Smoke alarms in the neighboring unit were functional, he said.

Watkins said AFD inspected the property in June, looking for operable smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, as well as overall building conditions, and it passed.

Amanda Cordova said by the time she came out of her apartment, the fire had fully engulfed her neighbor's unit. A car parked nearby was also in flames.

"The windows busted out," she said. "The car made a really loud boom first. When I went outside, the car and apartment were up in flames. ... There were like four explosions."

The fire appeared to have completely destroyed a ground level unit and another above it. It spread so quickly, Amanda Cordova said, that an older man living in the upstairs unit had to jump to safety.

"The flames were coming out of his window," she said, adding that he broke his back making the jump and suffered a burn to his arm and respiratory damage from the smoke and heat.

"My husband picked him up and carried him away from the burning building," she said. "Then a police officer and another woman carried him even farther."

According to an Arcata Fire press release, APD officers administered first aid until paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital.

Humboldt Bay Fire, Fieldbrook Fire, Blue Lake Fire and Samoa Fire departments arrived on scene to assist and firefighters were able to get the fire under control, after which they discovered the remains in the downstairs unit.

Humboldt County Sheriff's Lt. Sam Williams, who oversees the coroner's division, said Feb. 4 that his office had not yet confirmed the identity of the person killed in the fire and "it could take a little time."

Watkins said investigators have "isolated an area of interest as to the cause of the fire" but were waiting to disclose it until hearing the findings of a parallel insurance investigation.

AFD estimated the fire caused about $400,000 in damage to four apartments. It noted that the American Red Cross was on hand to help displaced residents. Amanda Cordova offered her "kudos" to the Red Cross, saying they were "right there to help."

Strombeck Properties owns and manages the property, which includes dozens of one to four-bedroom units spread across five street addresses known collectively as Meadowbrook Apartments. According to Strombeck Properties' website, the complex includes low-income and traditional units, with the low-income units starting at $804 a month and traditional units at $875 a month for a one bedroom. Four-bedroom units rent for as much as $1,595 a month, according to the site.

AFD said the company's employees were on scene after the fire to assist residents.

Aamanda Cordova said she's grateful the fire didn't spread farther but she's sad for her two senior neighbors, one of whom was killed while the other remains hospitalized.

"They are best friends," she said. "They are always outside talking."

In its press release, AFD took the chance to remind residents to check to make sure they have working smoke detectors and to plan two ways out of any room in the event of a fire. Because someone died in the fire, APD is conducting a criminal investigation parallel to the fire investigation out of an abundance of caution.

This story first appeared in two parts at www.kymkemp.com and is reprinted here with permission. Journal staffers Iridian Casarez and Thadeus Greenson also contributed to this report.

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Kym Kemp

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Kym Kemp is the editor and publisher of the news website Redheaded Blackbelt at www.kymkemp.com.

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