Cigarette-sparked blaze displaces dozens from South Austin apartments


More than 30 residents at Mission James Place apartments in South Austin were displaced Tuesday after a fire.

Affected residents were not allowed to return to their apartments Wednesday afternoon.

The air still smelled smoky as water dripped from burned floors and roofs at the Mission James Place apartment complex in South Austin on Wednesday, a day after a massive fire ripped through a building, leaving more than 30 people without a permanent home.

A cigarette, improperly discarded on a wooden second-floor balcony, had ignited the fire that quickly spread to the building’s third floor and attic, fire officials said.

Photos could be seen still hanging on walls inside the damaged units, which were cluttered with glass and other debris.

Apartment complex employees set up a makeshift leasing center in an empty second-floor apartment next to the gutted building, which was still closed off with yellow tape as fire crews continued to keep an eye on smoldering hot spots in the building.

The structure remained unstable so residents were not yet allowed back, fire officials said. A temporary meeting space for those displaced had been set up in the library of the nearby Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, Austin school district officials said.

Fire Division Chief Palmer Buck said crews first responded to the complex at 4009 Victory Drive just before 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Within 90 minutes, the fire was upgraded to a four-alarm fire, which prompted the Austin Fire Department to send 20 firetrucks and about 100 firefighters to the scene. Two trucks from the Westlake Fire Department also joined the effort.

Crews sprayed water onto the building from multiple trucks as temperatures in the city reached 97 degrees.

Fire officials said none of the residents or firefighters was injured.

Red Cross volunteers helped 26 displaced residents find a place to stay Tuesday night, said Libby Castillo, a spokeswoman for American Red Cross. She said the group did not shelter any of the residents, who instead stayed with friends or family. The Red Cross did help some find hotel rooms, she said.

“Volunteers went out again today to see if they could reach those people they weren’t able to assist yesterday,” Castillo said Wednesday.

The fire caused an estimated $750,000 in damage to the structure and $250,000 in damage the building’s contents, fire officials said.

Castillo said the easiest way to help residents affected by the fire was through monetary donations, made through the Red Cross website.

“When you donate to the Red Cross, it goes into our disaster relief efforts,” which help with home fires, Castillo said.

As crews checked apartments, they found and rescued two cats whom they reunited with their owners, fire officials said.

Rodney Meyer, 65, lost his apartment in the fire. He had stood across the street from the structure Tuesday, watching firefighters work to put out the fire.

“I just watched everything burn up,” he said. “Hey, it’s just stuff. I can replace it — eventually.”

Meyer and his wife, who manages the property, moved into an apartment on the third floor after they sold their home in Georgetown about a month ago.

“One of the leasing agents … heard a pop and saw flames,” Meyer said. “So they ran and called the Fire Department, got some fire extinguishers and were trying to put it out until the fire department got here, but it spread instantly.”

Nicolette Huffer, 23, also had stood nearby watching the fire Tuesday. She had lived in her apartment on the second floor for almost a year.

“I know my apartment was definitely hit,” she said.

Huffer and two others were in her apartment watching the movie “Thor” when someone from the leasing office banged on her door and said the apartment was on fire.

“We grabbed my dog, grabbed my money, grabbed my things and got out,” she said.

When she fled her apartment, the fire hadn’t reached her side of the building, Huffer said. She left to run a few errands and grab a bite to eat because she “didn’t think it would hit mine.”

Huffer said the seemingly small cause of the fire was “ridiculous because it burned down the whole building.”

“I thought it was an electrical fire or something,” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought that it would’ve been started by a cigarette.”

Buck said improperly discarded smoking materials are the leading cause of fires in Austin, along with people leaving food on the stove.

“They’re the two easiest types of fires to prevent,” Buck said.

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