No one was inside 17th Avenue house when two-alarm blaze broke out

by: NEWS TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Forest Grove Fire & Rescue crews work to extinguish a fire on 17th Avenue in Old Town Forest Grove early Wednesday morning.Gwen Steinbach was house-sitting for her sister across town when she got the early-morning call last Wednesday: her house in Old Town was on fire.

“I ran over there, and the whole street was full of fire trucks,” said Steinbach, a single mom whose children, Forest Grove High School graduates John and Rosie Steinbach, were away at college at the time.

“My house looked pretty normal from the outside, so it didn’t really hit me emotionally. But on the inside, it was like looking at a battle scene.”

The two-alarm fire largely rendered Steinbach’s house, where she has lived for 23 years, uninhabitable for now. She doesn’t know the extent of the damage — or when or if she and her family can return.

“It’s devastating,” she said Monday afternoon.

Matt Johnston, fire logistics technician for Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, said the blaze, which hit the two-story home at 2126 17th Ave. around 6:30 a.m. Feb. 5, was “still pretty active” by 8:15 a.m.

Two pet cats living in the house, located midway between Ash and Birch streets, are feared lost in the fire.

“I had been over there Monday (Feb. 3) to feed the kitties and get my mail,” said Steinbach. “My brother was there on Tuesday.”

When firefighters arrived Wednesday they saw “smoke coming from the roof line” and soon noticed fire in the back bedroom, Johnston said.

“The damage is pretty extensive — we had to cut three or four holes in the roof,” said Johnston, who added that fire crews had to contend with a significant amount of cluttter. “It’s not going to be lived in for a while.”

Steinbach said she had been storing crafting and teaching supplies, as well as set pieces and costumes from local theater productions, inside her home. “I’m not a hoarder,” she said, but “I am mortified that this was a problem for the firefighters.”

Had she been in the house at the time, Steinbach acknowledged, “I very well might not have made it.”

Johnston said frigid weather presented an additional challenge to firefighters.

“It’s 22 degrees out here and feels like 18 degrees,” said Johnston, who pointed out that fire crews originally responded to a “generic fire alarm” at the home, later upgrading it to a second alarm when they called for additional crews.

It took crews approximately 45 minutes to “fully knock down a majority of the flames,” noted Johnston, who added firefighters remained at the scene for an additional two hours, extinguishing hot spots and accessing hard-to-reach areas in the home.

Steinbach’s house, built in 1872, has features that “allow fire to spread very easily through the walls,” he added. Spots of fire were found throughout the home in walls and attic spaces.

FGF&R was assisted by the Cornelius Fire Department, the Hillsboro Fire Department, Banks Fire District and Gaston Fire District. Two fire chiefs, an investigator and 35 firefighters were on scene.

After several days of investigation, officials determined the fire likely was caused by “combustible items placed too close to a baseboard heater in the kitchen,” said Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer. No damage estimate was available by press time.

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