Fatal house fire caused by log that rolled out of fireplace

A house fire in Suquamish was reported at 12:30 p.m, and a person was found deceased inside. - Megan Stephenson / Herald
A house fire in Suquamish was reported at 12:30 p.m, and a person was found deceased inside.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

SUQUAMISH — A woman was found dead and a home sustained significant damage in a fire in Suquamish on Nov. 19.

Kitsap County Coroner Greg Sandstrom identified the woman as Cynthia B. McMahon, 57. The Kitsap County Fire Marshal reported Tuesday the fire appears to have started when a burning log rolled out of a first-floor fireplace onto some combustibles.

North Kitsap Fire & Rescue spokeswoman Michele Laboda said it was the first fire-related fatality in NKF&R's jurisdiction since January 2001, when an elderly man  died in a cabin fire in Hansville's Cliffside neighborhood.

Firefighters from North Kitsap Fire & Rescue and Poulsbo Fire Department went to the scene of the Suquamish fire -- at South Angeline Avenue and Balzow Road -- at 12:29 p.m. The fire was reported by a neighbor, who saw flames coming from the three-story house.

The first unit arrived on the scene in less than 10 minutes but had to access the property through narrow and winding roadways and a locked gate across the home’s driveway. Firefighters pushed through the gate and saw light smoke visible from the house. Moments later, an officer walking around the house saw heavy fire coming from the side of the home facing the water.  One crew quickly snuffed those flames while another crew began a search of the structure, Laboda reported. The victim was found inside but crews were unable to resuscitate her.

Battalion Chief Rick LaGrandeur, the incident commander, said the house had a lot of "void spaces" inside the walls where the fire continued to burn; flames traveled hidden in walls from the ground floor to the structure’s roof. "We were chasing this thing literally from the ground up," LaGrandeur said.

After opening up wall and ceiling spaces to extinguish hot spots with water, crews were able to say the blaze was completely extinguished approximately 50 minutes after arrival. The interior spaces of the home’s ground floor were severely damaged in the blaze.

Heat and smoke damage affected all three of the house’s floors but the structure remained intact. An adjacent garage and mother-in-law apartment were untouched by the fire, as were a recreational vehicle and two neighboring houses — less than 10 feet away on either side.

The owners of the home had three dogs, two of which were found unharmed soon after crews arrived.

There were no other injuries to firefighters or civilians.

Fireplace often left open to add air flow

Based on evidence at the scene as well as on interviews with family, neighbors and friends, investigators believe the fire started when a burning log rolled out of the fireplace and ignited a rug and nearby combustibles after the occupant went upstairs, according to Laboda.

The house, built in 1988, had a traditional fireplace in its first-floor living room. While outfitted with glass doors, the fireplace was often left open to add airflow when the occupant was building a fire.

Firefighters found one smoke alarm in the residence, but none of the responders heard it sounding when they arrived at the scene. It is unknown whether the alarm functioned as designed.

Although not required at the time the house was constructed, today’s building codes require interconnected smoke alarms to be installed on every floor of a residence and in every sleeping area. Building codes currently do not require sprinklers in single family residences, but officials say the devices would have automatically squelched the fire had they been present, according to Laboda.

Firefighters encourage the public to consider several measures to avoid fire tragedies:

Install residential fire sprinklers.
Install and maintain smoke alarms.
Make and practice a fire escape plan with two ways out of every room and one meeting place outside.
Stay in the room while building a woodstove or fireplace fire.
Keep all combustibles – including floor coverings, kindling and firewood -- at least three feet away from fireplaces and woodstoves.
When fire breaks out, get low to avoid superheated gases and smoke.  Close doors between you and the fire.


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