Burning grease, rekindled ember blamed for fires

Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A grease fire resulting from unattended cooking is thought to have caused a fire in Soldotna on Friday that ultimately claimed two lives, and a rekindled chimney fire is blamed for the destruction of a home on Ross Drive on Nov. 13.

ZeeCee “Curly” Crow, 80, who lived in the two-story wood house at 444 W. Riverview in Soldotna, died in a fire that started a little before 6 p.m. Friday. Robin Helminski, Crow’s 50-year-old friend and neighbor, was in the house when the fire started and suffered extensive third-degree burns in her attempt to rescue Crow and escape the blaze. She died around 7 p.m. Sunday in the Portland, Ore., medical facility she had been medevaced to Friday night, according to Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale.

Firefighters were called to the fire at 5:50 p.m. Friday. By the time they arrived, Helminksi had fled the house to call 911 from her home next door after unsuccessfully trying to rescue Crow. She was rushed to the hospital when firefighters found her. Crow didn’t escape the home and was found dead in a back office by fire crews, where he probably fled trying to avoid the fire.

According to Hale, evidence points to a grease fire that started in the home’s second-floor kitchen as the culprit. Apparently something cooking in an iron skillet caught fire, and instead of extinguishing the fire on the stove, Crow attempted to carry the burning skillet outside. He apparently dropped it in the hallway leading to the exit and the fire spread, blocking the exit.

Helminski, who regularly checked on Crow and often helped cook for him, may have been sleeping in a back bedroom at the time. Hale said she tested positive for consuming alcohol.

“Making a rescue with possible impaired judgment caused her to sustain the injuries that she did and subsequent death,” Hale said.

Crow also was tested for alcohol, as is standard practice in fire fatalities, but those results aren’t back yet. Crow and Helminski are the 18th and 19th fire fatalities in Alaska so far this year, according to the state fire marshal’s office.

The top level of the home was destroyed, but the ground level is salvageable.

Hale cautioned homeowners to never transport a fire. Grease cooking fires are best put out by turning off the heat and covering the fire to deprive it of oxygen, or using a fire extinguisher, Hale said. Baking soda also works, but Hale doesn’t recommended it because in a panic it can be mistaken for flour, which would make a grease fire worse. Water should never be used on a grease fire.

“By all means don’t make an effort to carry a flaming fire out an exit,” Hale said.

Helminski’s efforts to save Crow also are not recommended.

“If you have a fire, notify everybody in the house,” Hale said. “Sound the alarm. If it’s a small fire you need to make the judgment if you have a fire extinguisher to go ahead and extinguish the fire.”

If the fire is too large to be safely and quickly extinguished, residents should follow their fire escape plan, meet in the designated spot outside and immediately call 911.

“Do not delay in the response of the fire department. This will both lessen the amount of fire damage and possibly save your life if you’re involved in it,” Hale said.

In the Ross Drive fire, Hale said CES has concluded it was a rekindled chimney fire that led to the total destruction of the two-unit home.

CES responded to a report of a chimney fire at the home overlooking Sport Lake at about 7 p.m. Nov. 13. With the power out due to high winds that night, tenants in the upstairs unit built a fire in the fireplace. Hale said it looked as though they used too much wood and that, in combination with the windy weather, caused the fire to burn out of control, turning the iron doors of the fireplace a glowing red, Hale said.

Firefighters extinguished the fire with water and foam, removed all burning material from the fireplace and examined the chimney visually and with a heat imaging camera to look for hot spots.

“If there was any suspicion that a fire had existed in the walls they would have been torn down and the fire extinguished, but nothing was found,” Hale said.

“For some unknown reason we did have an ember somewhere in that two-story stack that was able to come alive again with the winds and create another fire.”

Firefighters left about 8:30 p.m., but not before instructing the unit’s occupants to remain in the home to keep an eye on things, Hale said.

The occupants instead went out to dinner and drove around the neighborhood waiting for the power to be restored, he said.

In the meantime another occupant of the upstairs unit, Michael Christian, came home from work. He wasn’t aware there had been a chimney fire and didn’t immediately notice anything amiss in the home. After coming back downstairs to the living area from his bedroom upstairs, he heard a crackling sound and saw a glow in the ceiling where the fireplace mantle met the ceiling. In the time it took him to investigate what he thought was a fire, the glow had grown from about the size of a quarter to 12 inches, Hale said.

Christian’s cell phone wasn’t working so he went outside and yelled for help. No one answered. He started running down the street looking for a home where he could call 911. Being legally blind, he had a hard time making out houses in the darkness, Hale said. He found one house with lights on from a generator, but no one answered. Finally he found a house about a quarter mile down the road where he found help and called 911.

“With him making the attempt of trying to locate the fire and going for help we may have had as much as a 15 or 20 minute delay in dialing 911,” Hale said. “His fault? No. Just circumstances didn’t prevail as far as his physical impairment hindered him from seeing these houses in the dark.”

Firefighters returned to the home about two hours after they left it, but the fire fed by the whipping winds was not put out before it destroyed the house, leaving the upstairs and downstairs tenants homeless.

Jenny Neyman can be reached at jennifer.neyman@peninsulaclarion.com.

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