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Fire destroys Langley home | UPDATE

South Whidbey Fire/EMS Assistant Chief Paul Busch directs the action as a car and house burn in the background. The blaze on Anthes Avenue in Langley destroyed a home but the human and animal occupants escaped safely.  - Jim Larsen / The Record
South Whidbey Fire/EMS Assistant Chief Paul Busch directs the action as a car and house burn in the background. The blaze on Anthes Avenue in Langley destroyed a home but the human and animal occupants escaped safely.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / The Record

We may never know the exact cause of a fire that destroyed a home in Langley late Friday afternoon.

The next day there was little but charred, crumbled remains of the home at 460 Anthes Ave. The garage where the blaze started was attacked by a backhoe that was used in the firefighting effort, possibly eliminating evidence of where the fire started.

Three people, four dogs and a number of cats escaped before the garage erupted into flames. A downstairs tenant was outside at the time of the fire.

“We don’t know if we’ll ever know the cause due to the extent of the damage,” said Paul Busch, South Whidbey Fire/EMS assistant chief, on Monday.

It was known that the fire started in the garage, and it was hard to extinguish because it was filled with books. The fire crawled across an open causeway to reach the house, which also went up in flames.

The fire alarm was called in about 6:30 p.m. and the first firefighters arrived 9 minutes later, Busch said. “The garage was already collapsing,” he said. “We had to get a car fire out to get close enough to work.” Firefighters sprayed a hose directly into the burned car to prevent a gasoline explosion.

Busch called the response time “about average.” He’s heard complaints the response was slow, but he said the response time is “electronically stamped.”

A private insurance investigator was due to be on the scene Monday, Busch said. South Whidbey Fire/EMS investigations are conducted by Chief Rusty Palmer, who was on vacation in Mexico when the fire broke out. He was due to be home Tuesday.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS threw everything it had at the stubborn blaze, but even after 20 minutes of battle flames were still licking above the roof of the house, located about block up the hill from the United Methodist Church.

Homeowner Maralie Johnson stood on the edge of the street with her grandchildren by her side as she watched everything she owned go up in a haze of smoke and flames.

“We don’t know,” she said, when asked how the fire started. “It started in the garage and my grandson said ‘the house is on fire!’”

Her grandson, Ryan Russell, 14, said he smelled smoke and told everyone to leave. He dialed 911. The call came in about 6:30 p.m. said firefighter Jon Gabelein, who was taking a break at about 7 p.m.

Emmalee Russell, 8, ran outside with her grandmother and brother. Downstairs tenant Vicki Lanning said she was outside weeding the garden. She was too shaken to talk much about it.

Johnson said there were a number of cats in the house and she was not certain they were all accounted for. “I hope they’re all out,” she said. Assistant Chief Busch later said all but one cat had been accounted for. “It probably ran for the hills,” he said.

Johnson appeared to take in the scene rather calmly. “I believe God will take care of me but I tell you I’m upset,” she said. Already two people had offered the family a place to spend the night.

Anthes Avenue was lined with at least four fire engines, a couple of tankers, rescue vans, and ambulance and miscellaneous equipment. Two firefighters on top of a fire trucks trained high arcs of water from water cannon on the house as others hosed it down from the ground. Ladders were brought in to gain entry to the upper level.

Reserve Langley Police Officer Leif Erickson, who is an Island County Sheriff’s deputy in his full-time job, was the first emergency responder to arrive. He said the occupants were already outside but he helped get some animals out. “The smoke was coming out of the garage,” he said. The roof of the garage soon caved in as the rest of the house was smoldering.

Townsfolk lined the avenue by the dozen, chatting, hugging and taking pictures. Marci Wiley, a Langley resident, said she had just come home from the mainland when saw “a huge black cloud,” hovering. She couldn’t resist stopping to see what was going on.

By 7:30 p.m. firefighters were still dealing with billowing steam and smoke. There was no doubt they had a long night ahead of them. A rehab area was established for firefighters who had gone through one tank of oxygen. Law requires that they are checked out before going back to firefighting, Busch said. He was appreciative of Mo’s Pub, which brought hot dogs to the famished firefighters. “They brought down a whole bunch at the end,” he said. “Those hot dogs didn’t last long.”

Busch said the firefighting effort ended at about 10:30 p.m. and it took firefighters until midnight to stow away their gear and head for home. He estimated the damage at $250,000, emphasizing that was only a “wild guess.”

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