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Community meeting on Regency Woods fire set for Saturday

The fire at the Regency Woods apartment complex July 19 occurred next to an open field and parking lot on the edge of the property. But other apartment buildings were just across streets and were not damaged.  - Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter
The fire at the Regency Woods apartment complex July 19 occurred next to an open field and parking lot on the edge of the property. But other apartment buildings were just across streets and were not damaged.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford, Renton Reporter

The Renton fire department will host a community meeting Saturday (Aug. 9) to help ease residents' concerns about the four-alarm fire July 19 at the Regency Woods apartment complex.

The fire displaced 39 residents, most of whom found alternate housing quickly. The building where the fire started has been torn down, and two others were heavily damaged.

What happened that windy afternoon, said assistant fire marshal Ted Hickey, was a "violent ugly thing" where some people had to jump to safety from windows.

For some residents there was almost a level of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

City officials were discussing whether to show a video of the entire fire taken from a nearby construction site. Hickey said the city has to be sensitive about the trauma the fire caused to residents.

In the aftermath of the fire, residents have expressed appreciation for the speed of the fire response but concern about coordination and execution of an evacuation plan for other buildings in the large complex and beyond, according to a top fire official.

The meeting is 10 a.m.-noon at Carco Theater next to the Renton Community Center, 1715 S.E. Maple Valley Highway, Renton.

Elected officials, along with fire department personnel, will attend.

The invitations were going out to Regency Woods residents and to neighborhoods nearby that may have been affected by the fire. Wind-blown embers set brush and grass fires beyond the apartment complex.

Such community meetings are not typical but the Regency Woods fire was "large in scale," said Renton Deputy Fire Chief Erik Wallgren.

The cause of the $3 million is undetermined, one of four classifications used by fire investigators. A fire's cause is undetermined when investigators have suspicions about a fire's origin but not enough evidence to prove the cause in a court.

Because of high winds, estimated at 20 to 30 mph, there was a strong possibility the fire could have spread deeper into the complex, according to fire officials.

Investigation of the fire was complex, because of the number of residents the lone fire investigator needed to interview and the fact the fire destroyed clues to its origin, according to Hickey.

Assisting the fire investigation was a security camera at a worksite several hundred feet away that was pointed at the Regency Woods building where the fire started.

The security camera captured the moment the fire flared on the southwest corner of a three-story, 12-unit building and until it was extinguished. That information showed investigators where to excavate into the building's rubble to search of evidence, according to Hickey.

The excavation didn't reveal any evidence that was a "definitive" link to the fire's cause, Hickey said. And it's possible that water used to fight the fire flushed away evidence, such as cigarettes.

Possible causes were a beauty bark fire, a cigarette or briquets from a barbecue. Investigators didn't find any evidence of briquets and that area outside the building is not where maintenance workers clean up cigarettes, according to Hickey.

Another "likely cause" is a beauty-bark fire, said Hickey, who has investigated fires for more than 30 years. In that scenario it's possible the fire could have started many feet away, smoldered underground and then popped up by the building, he said.

The official report won't be available for several weeks, but "unless some miracle pops up," the cause will remain undetermined, Hickey said.

"I know that frustrates people, but I don't think it frustrates them as much as it frustrates us," he said.

Hickey said he's heard the questions about the evacuations of other Regency Woods buildings and as far away as Renton Hill, mostly about when residents could return to their homes.

Evacuations are coordinated by the Renton Police Department.

"I thought our crews did an awesome job and the Police Department did an awesome job of getting people out of the way," he said.

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