Discarded cigarette caused house fire

This was the scene of a house fire in the early morning hours Sunday after fire crews from the Elk River Fire Department arrived. No one was hurt in the fire thanks, due largely to the quick actions of a neighbor who spotted the blaze. The fire remains under investigation.

by Jim Boyle

It has been ruled that a discarded cigarette unintentionally caused the house fire in the 18800 block of Zumbro Street  Aug. 12, according to Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham.

The cigarette is believed to have been discarded into a plastic coffee can that caught fire on the deck in the rear of the Elk River home.

Barbara Jones, the homeowner, admits to smoking on the deck earlier in the evening, but she questions how it could have been a cigarette. “That container was filled with water,” she said. “I will debate this.”

Cunningham is confident that a cigarette is the culprit.

“Accidents do happen,” he said. “Thankfully, everyone made it out safely and there were no civilian casualties.”

The owner of the home was roused that night by a neighbor who spotted the blaze from across the street and came running to her aid. By the time he saw it, flames were coming off the back of the home from the back corners on both sides of the house, Shane Schminkey said.

Schminkey’s wife, Carrie, called 911 as Shane ran to the front door of Barbara Jones’ home.

Elk River Police and Fire were dispatched to the home at 12:31 a.m., according Sherburne County dispatch records.

The residence was well involved in fire when the fire and police departments arrived.  Fire was venting through the roof and the attic was completely involved in fire, Cunningham stated.  There was also heavy fire at the back of the residence, near the area of origin.

“Because the fire began outside the structure, it had time to grow before it set off a detector inside the house,” Cunningham said.

The bulk of the fire was quickly extinguished upon the arrival of the first engine, but there was already significant structural damage to the building which resulted in a collapse of the roof.

Jones, who was awakened by her neighbor’s screeching voice, briefly searched for her youngest of five children, who was still living at the home. After giving up those efforts she called him on his cell phone from the street and discovered he was with his girlfriend and safe. From there she watched as her home burned and her belongings were destroyed.

She estimated it took the fire department a half hour to arrive on scene, something Cunningham clarified after the Aug. 18 edition of the Star News went to press.

Elk River Fire’s duty officer was en route at 12:32 a.m. (1 minute after being dispatched) and arrived at 12:40 a.m. (no more than nine minutes after being dispatched).

Elk River’s fire chief arrived at 12:41 (no more than 10 minutes after being initially dispatched) and the two engines arrived on scene at 12:46 a.m. (no more than 15 minutes after ERFD was dispatched.)

Cunningham said he understands that waiting for a fire department to arrive while watching a home burn is a traumatic experience.

“Seconds turn into minutes and minutes turn into hours,” he said. “That’s perfectly understandable.”

Cunningham said Elk River firefighters were able to knock the fire down quickly because much of the home’s interior had not been touched by fire.

This was the seventh building fire of the year for the Elk River Fire Department.

“Fires in buildings grow exponentially faster than years ago because of how things are constructed with plastics and other materials,” Cunningham said.

The fire chief said the final report is still being wrapped up but a discarded cigarette is consistent with the burn patterns and the timeline of events.

Meanwhile, a fund has been set up for the family that lost virtually everything in the Elk River blaze.

The Barbara Jones House Fire Relief Fund is open at M&I Bank in Rogers, located at 13798 Rogers Dr. Jones’ house was at 18829 Zumbro St. in Elk River.

Her sister, Lisa Jones, told the Star News Barb had no insurance on the house or on belongings.

“Barb is a single mom and a full-time student and she’s doing everything that she could to make ends meet and she just couldn’t afford the insurance,” her sister said. Barb Jones is a student at Anoka Technical College, studying to become a registered nurse.

She lost her house and just about everything in the fire. All she has salvaged are a few clothes.

Jones’ 16-year-old son, Jake, was not home at the time. Their cat died in the fire.

Lisa Jones said her sister and nephew will be living in a borrowed camper for now.

“It’s a huge devastation and she really needs help,” she added.