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Regency Park Apartments fire: Victims coping with loss, fire source believed to be smoking materials

Delores Johnson, left, and Darolyn Erickson, both residents of Regency Park Apartments, listen to a presentation Tuesday morning at a meeting to inform and help those displaced by Monday's fire. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper1 / 2
Fire victims from Regency Park Apartments were allowed to be escorted into their apartments Tuesday afternoon to gather emergency items. Resident Andrea Miller, left, accompanied by her friend Barb Fisher, carries a few items from her apartment. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper2 / 2

Nissa Peltier doesn't know what her family is going to do.

Peltier and her family live in the south complex of Regency Park Apartments, which was ravaged by fire Monday afternoon.

They were fortunate in that their apartment was not badly damaged. A preliminary estimate of damage rated it at 2 percent.

But the family did not have renter's insurance. They spent Monday night at Quality Inn, which offered a free night's stay to fire victims.

But Peltier did not know what she would do for the next 6-8 months, during which time Regency Park is expected to be unavailable for occupancy.

"I have no idea yet," she said.

The cause of the Regency Park fire is believed to be discarded smoking materials, according to a press release from the Bemidji Fire Department. The suspected cause was determined by the Bemidji Police Department, Bemidji Fire Department and Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office.

The fire at Regency Park, 1228 30th St. N.W., was contained to the middle section of the complex. However, due to damages, the complex no longer meets building code.

Bill Barthelemy, the building official for the city of Bemidji, addressed fire victims during a Tuesday morning meeting that the building is inhabitable for now.

"There are some building code issues with the building now," he said.

Due to the size of the complex, which has 63 units and the number people who lived there, the code requires two exits from all floors.

One of the previous exits was via the elevator, located in the damaged middle section. There are staircases available on the east and west end of the complex, but without a middle section, there is nothing connecting the entire building.

"The elevator has been compromised. The sprinkler system has been compromised," Barthelemy said.

The complex is planned to be rebuilt, Barthelemy said, noting that what is left of the building looks sound.

"It's in remarkably good shape," he said.

Apartment damage

Fire victims received their first indication Tuesday as to how much damage was sustained in individual units.

A preliminary assessment offered estimated percentages of damage.

Seven apartments, which included one vacancy, are believed to be completely gutted by fire. All seven are on the third floor.

The fire is believed to have started on a balcony. It quickly spread to the outside wall and into the attic area above the top apartment units.

Most of the more heavily damaged apartments were on the third floor. The third floor was the only floor that did not have a single apartment that escaped some type of damage.

Of 20 units on the first floor, 13 units sustained 0 to 5 percent damage. Four units sustained 40 percent damage and a community room sustained 75 percent damage, mostly due to water damage.

Of 21 units on the second floor, 10 sustained 0 to 5 percent damage. One unit sustained 90 percent damage and three others sustained 80 percent.

The underground garage, which contained about 20 vehicles at the time of the fire, was not damaged.

Fire response

The Bemidji Fire Department received the initial call at 3:01 p.m. Upon arrival, there were flames and heavy smoke coming from the third story and roof.

Even after the fire was contained and extinguished, the Bemidji Fire Department maintained a presence throughout the night to watch for hot spots. The Bemidji Police Department provided security.

"It was a relatively big fire for us," Hoefer said.

Firefighters from six agencies, including five area fire departments, battled the blaze.

Hoefer estimated that there were about 125 emergency responders on scene.

"We put a lot of resources on the scene," Hoefer said.

Responding to the fire were the Bemidji, Bagley, Blackduck, Cass Lake and Solway fire departments, the Bemidji Police Department, Bemidji Police Citizens Patrol, Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Forestry and Enforcement divisions, Bemidji Ambulance, North Country First Responders, Minnesota State Patrol, bus service from the Bemidji School District, Beltrami County Mounted Posse, U.S. Border Patrol, North Star Chapter of the American Red Cross, North Country Amateur Radio Club and Beltrami County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Management.

Getting access

Mount Zion Church, 414 Lincoln Ave. S.E., is serving as a shelter and information center for fire victims.

A town hall meeting, lasting more than an hour, was held Tuesday morning at the church. Victims heard from numerous spokespeople and had a chance to ask questions.

Most of the questions focused on getting access to personal belongings.

The Bemidji Fire Department turned over the building Tuesday afternoon to Crown Management, which manages Regency Park Apartments.

Access to units was planned to begin Tuesday, but was first to be restricted to emergency needs such as prescription medication.

Hoefer, who, coincidentally, has a first-floor apartment unit in the complex, said he, too, had not been inside his unit as of Tuesday afternoon.

Jim Cole with Crown Management said the company is going to do everything it can to assist fire victims.

"We really don't know how quickly it'll be before (the building) is functioning again," he said.

Meanwhile, he offered victims the chance to claim damage deposits.

"If there's anything we can do to help you out, let us know," he said.

Cole also said Crown Management will work to find housing alternatives for those displaced by the fire.

"I'm not going to leave anybody out on the street in a cardboard box," he said.