Firefighters hack into downtown house to kill blaze

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

Firefighters battled a stubborn fire through holes cut into the roof and eaves of a downtown home for more than an hour Thursday afternoon. No one was hurt, but the house was damaged extensively.

The Spruce Street fire was reported about 12:30 p.m. to Capital City Fire and Rescue by someone who noticed smoke and flames coming from the home, which is near Juneau-Douglas High School and Harborview Elementary School.

"We ran over here and saw smoke pouring out of a vent and then a big old thing of flame shot out of the house," said Josh Carte, 15. "It's sad."

Homeowners Lawrence and Marianne Welp were not home at the time of the fire, volunteer Fire Chief Max Mielke said. The couple's son, whose name was not available, was home and told fire officials that he began smelling smoke about 11 a.m. He said he was looking for its source until just before firefighters arrived.

Mielke said the fire may have started with an old electrical heating strip used to melt ice in gutters near the roof. The strip did not have a mechanism to stop power when the wires overheat, he said. The wires melted together, but electricity continued to pump into the area, which could have caused the fire.

"The fire spread under the eaves and into a 50-foot-long by 12-foot-wide void in the attic used for storage," Mielke said. "Then each of the beams that go across the ceiling of the attic, because of the way the house is constructed, contained its own fire. We had to try to gain access to each of those fires to contain it. We had a hard time getting at them. That's why it took us about an hour to fully knock it down."

Mielke said firefighters had to cut large holes in the roof and siding of the house.

"There was a hatch to the attic we tried to use but there was too much smoke and heat rushing through it to gain access," he said. "So we had to try to attack it from the outside."

Total estimated damage to the home was $100,000, including damage from smoke and water, Mielke said. The family cat made it back home safely after it escaped during the commotion, he added.

Mielke said the fire department sees a lot of heat-strip fires, and people should have an electrician check the strips at least once a year.

Firefighters asked the Juneau Red Cross to assist members of the family, who are staying with friends, Mielke said.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at

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