Quick action averts tragedy from fire at senior housing apartment building

Quick action by law enforcement officers from the Hamilton police and Ravalli County sheriff’s office may have saved lives following a late-night fire at a Hamilton senior housing apartment building.

Quick action by law enforcement officers from the Hamilton police and Ravalli County sheriff’s office may have saved lives following an early-morning fire Wednesday at a Hamilton senior housing apartment building.

The fire call at the Bitterroot Manor came in at 12:48 a.m. 

The three-story building on Hamilton's 10th Street houses 60 apartments. The fire started in a recliner in an apartment on the second story.

“The fire got into the foam padding of the recliner,” said Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn. “That foam padding pumps out black, toxic smoke.”

Fortunately, Mohn said a staff member at the apartment building was able to use an extinguisher to knock the fire down before it had a chance to spread.

“That night worker did a great job,” Mohn said.

Sapphire Lutheran Homes executive director Cole Harden said the alarm system in the building is tied to one computer at the main desk. Typically, when an alarm goes off, it's because someone has burned some food in their room.

In this case, Harden said a staff member called the apartment and its resident told that person there was a fire.

"That staff member ran to the apartment," Harden said. "In a three-minute period, he grabbed a fire extinguisher, went into the apartment and extinguished the fire to the best of his ability."

He then yelled for someone to call 911.

Harden said officers arrived shortly afterward and got the resident out of the room. 

"We are very thankful for the good coordinated response by our staff and first responders," Harden said. "The community can be proud of our first responders and very thankful for them."

The four officers who responded to the scene immediately went to work helping to evacuate people from the building to the nearby Sapphire Lutheran Home cafeteria.

Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster said police officer Jessica Hayward and sheriff sergeant Brad Weston and deputy Dan Mendonca worked together to safely remove the woman who suffered burns from the fire. They were soon joined by police officer Neil Honkala. The four used a passkey to enter apartments and help residents safely evacuate the building.

“They were in there for a fairly significant amount of time,” Oster said. “They said it took about 40 minutes to get everyone out. That’s quite a bit of time to work in that sort of an environment without any protection.”

Mohn said there was a lot of smoke on the second floor of the building. The Corvallis Fire Department was called to assist with the evacuation and smoke removal.

“The officers from the police department and sheriff’s office ate a lot of smoke,” Mohn said. “They did a really good job. This could have been much worse. When you get a fire in a place where you need to evacuate 60 to 70 people, with many requiring walkers or oxygen, time is an issue.”

The four officers were treated after the incident at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital for smoke inhalation.

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“This was the best resolution to what could have been a very bad situation,” Mohn said. “They saved a lot of people from smoke inhalation.”

Oster said he was pleased with the quick response and action taken by the officers.

“This really could have been a lot worse,” Oster said. “For something like that to happen that late at night when everyone is asleep … They not only saved that gal’s life, but others as well.”

Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said he couldn't be prouder of those who responded to the fire yesterday. 

"There was a real danger to their own health, but they took immediate action and did what they needed to do to save someone," Holton said. "Between the city police, fire department and sheriff's office, they absolutely saved lives. Probably more than we know."

Hamilton mayor Dominic Farrenkopf works at Sapphire Lutheran Homes.

“Having spoken with officials involved in the fire incident at Sapphire Lutheran Homes, I am very proud of the response of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department, the Hamilton City Police Department and Ravalli County Sheriff's Office,” Farrenkopf said. “Our first responders in this community continue to offer self-sacrifice and go above and beyond to keep our community safe.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The condition of the woman injured in the fire was not released.