Five Oregon State University students narrowly escaped a predawn house fire Tuesday after someone set a fire on their porch - the second such arson in two weeks, fire investigators said.
Corvallis firefighters extinguished the fire shortly after 3 a.m. Tuesday at 302 N.W. 21st St. This fire and a March 21 fire at 1654 N.W. Van Buren Ave. both were started on the porch and both have been ruled arson.
A $5,000 reward is being offered by the Oregon Council Against Arson for any information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Four residents and the girlfriend of a tenant were in the house at the time of Tuesday's fire and escaped by the time the Corvallis Fire Department arrived. One resident suffered minor smoke inhalation and was transported to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, where he was treated and then released. One tenant was not home.
Tuesday's fire was reported at 2:52 a.m. and quickly spread to the living room. Thick smoke and flames spread throughout the house to the attic, forcing firefighters to cut holes in the roof to access and ventilate the fire. The exterior of the 100-year-old, five-bedroom house stood charred later Tuesday morning, its windows broken.
One of the residents discovered the fire by waking up to the sound of "crackling."
"I thought it was tree branches against the window," said Dustin Smith, 23, of St. Paul. "I opened my door and saw flames pushing toward me."
Smith, whose room is on the first floor, yelled a warning to the other occupants in the house, and they all escaped through the back door.
"I'm just in shock and awe," Smith said. "We just watched it burn from across the street; there's not much we could do but watch."
About 20 firefighters in three engines, a ladder truck and an ambulance arrived within two minutes of the call. The fire was extinguished in about 45 minutes.
Smith said that he planned to spend the night at his next-door neighbor's residence. The other roommates plan to stay with their girlfriends.
"I don't think it has set in yet," Smith said as he looked at the charred remains of his residence. "I had a brand new laptop, and it just melted."
The March 21 fire was reported by a passerby at 3:49 a.m. and engulfed a porch. The one occupant, an OSU graduate student, escaped without injuries. Jim Patton of the Corvallis Fire Department said that there are obvious similarities between the two fires, which occurred within five blocks and two weeks of each other.
"They both involved a porch, happened in the early morning, involved OSU students," he said.
However, Patton said, there is no reason at this time to believe that these fires are connected to the series of 11 arson fires that have occurred in Albany since October. Those Albany fires have mostly involved historic residences undergoing renovation.
Patton said first-degree arson, a class A felony, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Smith said he was astonished to learn that the fire was arson.
"If someone intentionally did it, that's really messed up," he said. Smith said that he didn't have classes Tuesday, but returning to class today poses some problems.
"I'm going to have to tell my teachers that my books are ashes," he said.
Patton said that Smith and the residents in both fires were lucky to escape because neither house had a working smoke alarm.
"They didn't hear it, meaning it didn't function," Patton said. "They were lucky (Smith) woke up, and they got out."
A smoke alarm costs about $10. The Corvallis Fire Department offers free alarms and will install them at no cost for those who cannot afford to buy them. The department also offers free batteries.
"Nobody in Corvallis should be without a smoke alarm," Patton said. "There is no excuse; you just never know."
Emily Gillespie can be contacted at 541-758-9548 or firstname.lastname@example.org.