Cause of house fire is still unknown

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of a fire that severely damaged a house on Pine Court in Eagle Point on Sunday.

"We have it down to one area, but we still don't have the cause," said Don Hickman, fire marshal for Jackson County Fire District No. 3.

The fire broke out in the garage of Joe and Claudia Saleh's house about 2:30 p.m. and spread to the attic. Hickman said damage to the house and contents could run to as much as $400,000. Two vehicles, including a custom 2002 Ford F-150 Lightning pickup in the garage and a 1998 GMC Savannah van in the driveway, were reduced to charred hulks by the flames.

The pickup was Joe Saleh's "pride and joy," Hickman said.

Saleh and several neighbors who watched the house burn Sunday criticized the first District 3 engine crew to arrive for its inability to immediately put water on the flames. They said the firefighters appeared not to know what they were doing and it took "forever" for them to get their pump running.

Fire Chief Dave Hard offered an explanation Wednesday.

Hard said the fire engine that's ordinarily stationed in Eagle Point was at TouVelle State Park last Sunday in conjunction with the District 3 volunteers' picnic. When the alarm for the Eagle Point fire came in, fire engines from White City, Central Point and Gold Hill that had been dispatched to an earlier alarm at the Department of Veterans Affairs in White City were returning to their stations.

Hard said the Gold Hill engine was dispatched to the Salehs' house because it was closest to the location of the fire.

The Gold Hill engine was staffed by summer-seasonal firefighters under the supervision of a District 3 captain. Hard said the Salehs' fire was the seasonal firefighters' first structure fire and they had problems getting the pump operating on their fire engine.

He said the Gold Hill engine is at least 10 years old, and was purchased when the city had its own independent fire department. The truck has an unusual pump/tank configuration, and an air bubble was blocking the flow of water. To clear the bubble, firefighters must follow a specific series of actions, and they struggled to get the pump working.

"You don't have to do that in any other (District 3) rig," he said.

Hard said the firefighters lost "two or three minutes" while they got the pump working. Hard said those lost minutes may have cost firefighters the opportunity to stop the fire, but flames had already entered the attic when the first engine arrived.

He said attic fires are difficult to contain because they burn in an enclosed space where firefighters have limited access to work.

"Heat rises," Hard said. "The attic is the hottest part of the fire."

Hard said firefighters train regularly, but training is nothing like an actual fire, especially the first fire of your career. He said the district would make sure that everyone who is likely to use the Gold Hill engine knows how to get the pump working quickly.

Reconfiguring the Gold Hill truck's pump arrangement would cost $100,000, Hard said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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