A firefighter puts a stream of water into the garage at a house on South 15th Street Friday evening. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

A correction was made at 12:11 p.m. Aug. 5, 2023: An earlier version of this article reported that firefighters returned to the scene at approximately 2 a.m. Saturday. The correct estimated time for their return was at around 12:30 a.m.

While firefighters battled a blaze on a windy Friday evening on South 15th Street, the son of the elderly couple who safely got out of the house arrived and could only watch as the operation unfolded.

Meanwhile, a next-door neighbor paced in front of the scene with fears about the blaze getting out of control. Other neighbors and residents lined the sidewalk across the street and watched in silence.

“Philomath Fire and Rescue has not had a structure fire of this magnitude in several years,” Deputy Fire Chief Rich Saalsaa said. “We are thankful for the assistance from our neighbor departments and for the citizens who support us.”

Indeed, the fire brought in plenty of support on a day when several departments, including Philomath, had also sent resources to a wildfire in Linn County. The operation went on for hours and included a second response in the wee hours of Saturday morning when the fire reignited.

The fire heavily damaged the attic of the home at 233 S. 15th St. and destroyed the attached garage. An investigation into the cause of the fire was ongoing Saturday morning.

“The residents will be interviewed on Saturday to get an idea of how the fire started,” Saalsaa said. “The area of origin is the back deck of the residence, next to the garage. This is the heaviest damaged area and consistent with witnesses who called in the fire.”

Lt. Viktor Bovbjerg, left, talks to Deputy Fire Chief Rich Saalsaa during the operation. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Fire and Rescue was dispatched to the fire at 6:58 p.m. Friday with initial reports of the garage, back of the house and trees on fire. Saalsaa, who served as the on-scene incident commander, said that while en route, he could see a large column of black smoke.

“At that time, I ordered a second alarm knowing that we would need more personnel,” he said. “I arrived first to find heavy fire from the rear of the residence and a fully-involved garage fire. In addition, a fence was on fire as well as trees in the area.

“A neighboring house’s garage was also on fire near the eves where the plastic rain gutters were burning,” he added.

The home’s elderly owners were leaving the residence as firefighters arrived. The Red Cross was contacted to help the displaced couple. Philomath Community Services also offered assistance, Saalsaa said.

The initial response included a single engine with three firefighters and they attacked with a hose from the outside on one side of the house. Another hose quickly put out the fire on the neighbor’s property before turning to the flames on the property’s garage.

The Corvallis Fire Department arrived next with three firefighters and entered the home’s interior to knock down flames at the rear of the house. Soon after, the garage fire was brought under control, Saalsaa said.

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“The residence has undergone three separate remodels over time, which presented a problem when attempting to extinguish the fire that had gotten into the attic,” Saalsaa said. “There were numerous void spaces with several attic spaces with barriers to being able to have water reach the seat of the fire. It took only 15 minutes to knock the main fire down, but nearly an hour to fully extinguish the full fire.”

The interior of the main residence suffered water and smoke damage. Firefighters began to take the couple’s personal effects out of the house, such as pictures and high-value items.

Saalsaa said there was heavy damage to the attic and roof, part of that related to the several holes that were required in attempts to access the fire. The garage that burned down had a vehicle inside.

As it turned out, the job fighting flames wasn’t finished.

“Unfortunately with this type of fire, it’s hard to be certain that all deep-seated fire is extinguished as the ceiling of the residence was plywood and shiplap boards, which was difficult to break through,” Saalsaa said. “A fire watch was set, and about 90 minutes after crews left, the fire re-established itself, and with the gusty winds, began to spread again.”

The home’s attic area created challenges for firefighters and led to a second response. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath and Corvallis crews were recalled to the residence at approximately 12:30 a.m. and went back to work. This time, they were able to break through the thick ceiling.

“Crews could then place large fog pattern water into the hard-to-reach attic spaces,” Saalsaa explained. “Fire watch was again set after the second extinguishment.”

The second response continue until around 2:30 a.m.

According to Benton County property tax records, the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house was built in 1946 and features 1,040 square feet of living space. Records also show a 220-square-foot attached garage and 264-square foot utility shed. Tax records from 2022 showed a real market value of $256,000.

A firefighter recovers on the home’s front lawn. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

In all, five fire departments were included in the response. Corvallis sent two engines and six personnel, plus a battalion chief. Monroe Rural Fire had one engine with two personnel and a duty officer at the scene. Alsea Fire and Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire each sent in engines with two personnel.

Blodgett-Summit Rural Fire had a tender with two personnel standing by along with four Philomath personnel at Station 201 on Main Street to cover any other calls that might come in.

The Philomath Police Department and Benton County Sheriff’s Office were on hand to help secure the scene and assist with traffic and crowd control.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.