Neighbor Cool Under Pressure When Apartment Fire Breaks Out

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MTT News Desk's picture
Matt Geiger
The door of the apartment unit where Tuesday's fire started.

They don’t call Middleton the Good Neighbor City for nothing.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday, a resident on the second floor of an apartment building in the Forest Harbor complex at 2070 Allen Boulevard noticed thick black smoke spewing from a neighbor’s living quarters. Hector Guerra dashed toward the apartment, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and took aim at flames that caused an estimated $55,000 to $60,000 in damage and left several families temporarily homeless.

The 16-unit building is located near Allen Boulevard’s intersection with University Avenue. One person was transported to an area hospital for smoke inhalation.

Brad Subera, a battalion chief with the Middleton Fire Department, said the blaze began atop an electric stove. “The resident turned on the knobs, then decided not to cook and went to take a nap,” he said. “There were some household goods on the stove and they caught fire.”

Jim Hill, a disaster plan and response specialist with A&J Specialty Services, said paper plates were the items that initially ignited.

Hill said the flames, which didn’t have much protein for fuel and therefore produced dark black smoke, spread quickly. Standing in the common area outside the apartment where the fire started, Hill pointed around a hallway corner: “[Guerra] actually came from around there [and] grabbed an extinguisher."

“We came out into the hall and sure enough, there were flames coming out of the dude’s apartment,” Guerra recalled, speaking from the hotel room where is staying while his apartment is repaired. “I asked the guy if he was okay and if he had called the fire department. Then my first thought was to pop the building’s alarms, but I couldn’t find them so I broke the glass and grabbed an extinguisher. I told the guy whose apartment it was to grab the other one, and he did.”

Guerra has lived in Middleton for several years, but he grew up a troubled youth in Los Angeles. “I was born in L.A., and when you are getting shot at and in gangs, staying calm under pressure is kind of the name of the game,” he said. “I just wanted to try to put out the fire.”

Guerra said he was fighting the blaze when he realized the flames were licking the top of the door frame. “I knew we couldn’t stop it, so the best we could do was try to contain it until firefighters got there,” he said.

When police arrived on the scene, they instructed everyone to evacuate the building. Guerra returned to his apartment and grabbed his computer, and a lockbox, but he couldn’t find his cat.

“If my cat had been lost I might as well have lost a girl too and made it a country song,” he said. “When the firefighters got there, I told them and they went in and found the cat, which is alive and well – just very skittish.”

Hill said five families were still displaced as of Wednesday morning, but all but two were expected to be allowed back into their living quarters by the end of the day. (Guerra is among those who will have to wait until at least the weekend.) Hill also said the fire served as a reminder that renters’ insurance is invaluable.

While most people don’t have renters’ insurance, Guerra does. “It’s like $10 a month,” he said. “That’s like a case of beer, and it’s paying off in spades right now. I’m really worried about some of my neighbors who don’t have it.”

Subera said the Middleton Fire District will consider a variety of ways to thank Guerra.

“We’re really appreciative of the quick thinking and bravery of the person who acted to mitigate the fire,” he stated.

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