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Meredith Holt, Published May 13 2012

Residents displaced in Moorhead apartment fire; building includes 18 units

MOORHEAD – Residents of an apartment complex here have been displaced after a fire Sunday morning. Fire officials say the fire was started by a man with an oxygen tank who was smoking in bed.

“It’ll be ruled an accident,” said Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen, who said Moorhead and Fargo firefighters responded at about 10:45 a.m.

The second-floor tenant, who was taken to a hospital by ambulance for smoke inhalation, told Duysen that ashes fell on his oxygen tank and started the floor on fire.

Duysen said the resident tried to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher, but the flames quickly spread to the apartment unit above and onto the roof, he said.

The building at 2409 4th Ave. N., a block east of the city water plant, had been deemed unlivable as of Sunday.

“There’s a lot of soot and smoke throughout all the main corridors,” Duysen said.

He said it was unclear how many residents were displaced, but the three-story building includes 18 units, and four of them were vacant.

Residents were allowed inside to retrieve their salvageable belongings Sunday.

“Even though we’re shutting the building down for now until they can assess it, there will be a lot of people coming back to get their things,” Duysen said.

Third-floor resident Joanna Wesely thought someone was barbecuing at first. “Then I thought, ‘Whoa, that doesn’t smell like a grill,’ ” she said.

Fellow third-floor resident Ernest Ells helped the man with the oxygen tank leave the building once he realized what was happening.

He said the man’s apartment unit was filled with smoke and he was sitting in the middle of it. “I had to grab him and put him on the stairs,” he said.

The rear of the complex suffered the most damage, and an insurance adjuster will be on site today to assess the damage so cleanup and repair can start early this week.

“I would think it’d be over $100,000, but we really don’t know,” Duysen said.

Ells said Wesely’s apartment was the most damaged.

“My place is pretty trashed,” she said.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army were on scene Sunday providing assistance to the displaced residents.

Sean Coffman, emergency services director with the Red Cross, said trained volunteers were working to provide immediate care and arrange temporary housing for the residents.

“The Red Cross is here to make sure they’re taken care of at least through the next 72 hours,” he said.

Coffman said the residents were experiencing shock. “I think they’re doing as best they can,” he said.

No other injuries were reported, and no pets were lost to the fire.

“The Salvation Army went unit to unit to get all the pets out,” Ells said.

He added that he wanted to thank the fire and police crews who responded.

“They were here promptly, and they took care of the situation in record time,” Ells said.

Duysen said Minnesota’s leading cause of fire deaths is careless smoking, and he would like to remind residents not to smoke in bed or while on medical oxygen.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590