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Electrical failing may be to blame for Santa Rosa apartment fire

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Gary Goss was looking to downsize when he and his wife, Susan, sold their Healdsburg house of 15 years this summer and moved into a rented apartment in west Santa Rosa.

The retired couple pared down their lives’ possessions, holding onto essentials such as keepsakes from Gary Goss’s career as an English professor and cherished paintings from his days in New York.

But fate and an apparent electrical malfunction conspired to take those things, too. Fire swept through an inner wall of the 12-unit building Sunday morning, coming in through a vent and destroying most of their remaining belongings.

“We’ve never been burned out before,” Goss said as he loaded items Monday into a van parked outside The Village apartments on Bay Village Circle. “If you count smoke damage, we lost about 80 percent of everything we owned.”

The Gosses were among as many as 30 people displaced by the fire at the sprawling 266-unit, two-story complex near Piner and Marlow roads. Some, like the disabled woman who lived next door, were relocated to vacant apartments in other buildings, while others got temporary lodging with the help of Red Cross officials.

An investigation into the cause pointed toward an electrical issue, but the search for answers continued Monday, according to a Santa Rosa fire official.

The apartment manager, Tracy Erickson, declined to comment.

New reports of smoke coming from the burned building brought firefighters back to the apartments Monday morning. Firefighters found it was just the smell of smoke lingering from the ruins of Sunday’s three-alarm blaze.

Sunday, at about 7:45 a.m., callers reported smoke at the complex. Firefighters arrived to find light smoke but no sign of flames.

The fire, however, was burning between the walls throughout the building and into the attic, unhindered in its spread due to the “party wall” construction, said Battalion Chief Ken Sebastiani, who supervised the firefight.

Fire officials sounded a second and then third alarm, bringing in more help. Eventually 46 firefighters, nine engines and four ladder trucks were at the scene.

It took about an hour to get the fire under control and for the next four hours or so, firefighters continued to seek out flames hiding in the walls and mopping up. In some cases they had to remove bathtubs to get to the flames burning in the flooring beneath, Sebastiani said.

In the end, four apartments were destroyed and eight others had moderate to minor damage. Sebastiani estimated the loss at $950,000.

The investigation into the cause was centered on a corner area where utilities for multiple apartments connected, Sebastiani said.

Fire inside the wall did not immediately set off smoke alarms and was allowed to burn unchecked for an unknown time before firefighters arrived, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal.

Such fires are particularly dangerous because they usually aren’t discovered until they’ve burned through walls and smoke is billowing into living areas, he said.

People should always report odors of smoke in their homes when the source isn’t known, he said.

A Santa Rosa firefighter who was hurt had been using an ax when his right hand apparently slipped and hit something, breaking a bone, Sebastiani said.

One woman in a wheelchair was rescued when arriving firefighters heard yelling from one of the apartments. They brought her outside and she was taken to a hospital for an evaluation but later released.

Retiree Warren White watched the fire from an adjacent building that was untouched. At one point, he said, flames shot 10 feet into the air through a hole in the roof. He notified firefighters about his wheelchair-bound neighbor as well as an elderly woman he worried would have trouble moving to safety.

“It was kind of shocking,” White said. “But all the people and animals got out OK.”

Meanwhile, workers on Monday boarded up windows and stretched blue tarps over holes in the roof. An armed security guard led residents past yellow emergency tape to collect belongings from their apartments.

Goss said the managers offered he and his wife an apartment in another complex they own across town. But he said he preferred The Village, with its tree-lined walkways and a refreshing pool. He hopes to return to the very same unit when it is repaired in about three months.

“They said they will rebuild,” Goss said. “We’re going to come back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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