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News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

Fire investigator says 'no cause for alarm' in Bel Air apartment fires

A deputy state fire marshal says there should be "no cause for alarm" among residents of the Hickory Hills community in Bel Air following three apartment fires there in three years, the latest early Thursday morning.

"Right now we have three different types of fire," Oliver Alkire, a senior deputy state fire marshal, said following Thursday's fire in the 200 block of Crocker Drive. The fire displaced 24 residents of the condo building and caused an estimated $1 million in damage.

One person suffered the effects of "minor smoke inhalation," but declined treatment, according to a notice of investigation issued by the fire marshal's office late Thursday. Eight of 18 apartment units in the building were destroyed or damaged.

Alkire said the three fires each had a similar burn pattern, but different causes and places of origin.

In early April, a fire in a building in the 100 block of Seevue Court in Hickory Hills caused $1.5 million in damage. Eight apartments were destroyed and 20 people were displaced. A firefighter was treated for dehydration.

The first fire, also in the 100 block of Seevue, occurred in January 2010.

"They meet code; they are in compliance," Alkire said of the Hickory Hills apartment buildings, which were constructed during the 1970s. "It's just a strange turn of events where we've had three fires there."

The cause of Thursday's fire is still under investigation, but Alkire said it originated in a laundry room of a bottom-level apartment, spread through the apartment and an open sliding glass door and then up the exterior of the building.

"It vented itself out and it eventually caught the exterior on fire, and it's like a domino effect," he explained. "It just keeps going up until it's either controlled or extinguished by the fire department."

Alkire noted windy conditions Thursday morning accelerated the fire.

He said fire is "constantly seeking combustible materials and it's constantly seeking oxygen."

The burning pattern was similar to the April and 2010 fires; the fire traveled up and over the buildings, fed by the oxygen outside.

"It just wants to feed on all available oxygen that it can get," Alkire said.

He again stressed that the causes were different in each fire, however.

Alkire said the 2010 fire was caused by a cigarette container on a rear deck.

The April fire originated in an interior utility room in the bottom of the building. Alkire said the flames eventually vented outside and "traveled up and caught the roof."

He noted the upper apartments sustained more serious damage than the lower apartments.

The cause of the April fire has been classified as "undetermined," a classification fire investigators use when they cannot identify the exact cause of a fire.

"We have no evidence linking anything criminal to that fire," Alkire said. "We're just not able to identify an exact cause."

He said cases where the cause is listed as undetermined remain open, and investigators follow up as long as they are able.

Alkire said the buildings at Hickory Hills have working smoke detectors, but do not have sprinklers, which were not required by building codes when they were built.

Sprinklers were not required until 1990 for all new apartments, condominiums, dormitories, hotels and motels, according to the notice of investigation.

Alkire said the buildings, which have brick exteriors, are "your typical wood-frame construction building."

"We encourage people to remain vigilant, have working smoke alarms and just follow basic fire safety guidelines," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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