Some of the eight families who were displaced after a fire destroyed part of their eight-plex Wednesday night returned to their homes Thursday to tour the damage, pick up some of their belongings, and begin the process of finding new places to live.
ACCESS Inc., the owner of the Barnett Townhomes at 1868 E. Barnett Road, began arranging for new accommodations for the families, with assistance from the Jackson County Housing Authority and the Southern Oregon Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Investigators said a 7-year-old child playing with a cigarette lighter in Unit 45 caused the fire that ripped through the development Wednesday night, leaving eight units uninhabitable.
The fire hollowed out Unit 45, burning through the townhouse's back wall and reducing the contents to ashes. All that remained of two sofas inside the living room were springs and ashes, and there was nothing left of the Christmas tree that had been decorating one corner.
Penny Anderson, a single mother with three sons, lived in the unit. Karl Giepel, a Medford fire investigator, said it was fortunate that Anderson's 7-year-old son, who started the blaze, immediately notified his mother.
"The one good thing he did was he ran and told his mother there was a fire," Giepel said. "A lot of juveniles who start fires just run and hide."
He said Anderson's prompt 9-1-1 call at about 8 p.m. enabled firefighters to save the other units.
Anderson was treated Wednesday for smoke inhalation and a minor burn on her arm at Rogue Valley Medical Center after initially trying to put out the blaze herself with a pan of water after she called 9-1-1. She was released Wednesday night and stayed the night with her boys at her boyfriend's home. By Thursday morning, she was up and around and getting assistance from Red Cross caseworkers.
"I lost everything: all the gifts for my kids, my family, pictures, things that can never be replaced," she said, with tears in her eyes. She said she doesn't have renter's insurance to replace the contents of her home.
Anderson said she doesn't know how her son obtained the cigarette lighter.
"I put everything up out of reach," she said.
Six of the displaced families spent Wednesday night at Homewood Suites by Hilton on Ellendale Drive with emergency funds provided by the Red Cross.
Melissa Mayne and her 3-year-old daughter, Saj'a Stone, still were dressed in their pajamas Thursday morning at the hotel. They were watching a movie about Santa together when the fire erupted, and they didn't have time to get dressed or take anything other than their jackets out of the apartment.
"Nothing else mattered except getting out," Mayne said.
A neighbor lent Mayne a pair of shoes after seeing that her slippers were soaked with water.
After evacuating, Mayne said she realized her cat, Miles, was missing. Miles is beloved in the neighborhood for knowing how to open doors and paying surprise visits to Mayne's neighbors, and she feared he had not survived the fire.
"I was so scared," she said.
A firefighter escorted her close to the building Thursday, and Miles came running to her when he heard her voice.
Some of the displaced families, such as Jose and Genoveva Rojas and their three children, planned to spend Christmas at the hotel. The Red Cross, which usually provides only three days of emergency lodging, food and clothing, extended their stay at the hotel until Monday, when they will move into a vacant unit at Barnett Townhomes.
The Rojases were escorted Thursday by employees from the housing authority and a damage restoration company hired by ACCESS into their home in Unit 44 to pack up some essentials, keepsakes and books for their children.
Genoveva Rojas smiled broadly with relief as she saw her Christmas tree, holiday gifts and living room furnishings safely stowed beneath a red tarp in the living room. Firefighters moved salvageable contents under tarps to protect them from water spewing from a broken pipe and the water they used to keep the fire from spreading.
Water was standing on the floor of the Rojas home, and corn husks intended for tamales still were soaking in a basin in the kitchen sink. Upstairs, Christmas stockings that had been hung on the children's bedroom doors were strewn across the hallway.
The Rojases' intact townhouse, immediately adjacent to the destroyed unit, demonstrated how firefighters managed to create a fire wall around Unit 45, preventing the blaze from consuming the other residences, Giepel said. Other homes only had smoke and water damage, and one small storage area also was destroyed, he said.
Power was shut off while firefighters battled the blaze, but it was expected to be restored at some of the surviving units by the end of Thursday, he said.
Fire officials estimated the total damage from the fire was about $150,000.
Phone calls have been pouring in from nonprofit organizations and individuals who want to provide holiday gifts and necessities for the displaced families, said Tiffany Bactista, occupancy specialist at the housing authority and former on-site manager at the Barnett Townhomes.
She said families in the housing development already have been giving their displaced neighbors what they could to try to add some cheer to their holiday. One family donated the turkey they planned to eat for Christmas, Bactista said. One young boy decided to give all his Christmas gifts to the children whose homes were damaged by the fire, she said.
To donate items to families displaced by the fire, call 973-3000 or visit http://www.access-inc.org/Page.asp?NavID=18.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.