Fire officials estimate $80K in damage to intended transition home for homeless in Salt Lake City

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 12:08 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A three-alarm structure fire downtown caused extensive damage to an intended transition home for homeless men Sunday morning.

The fire at 556 S. 500 East broke out around 7:30 a.m., Salt Lake City Fire Deputy Chief Dan Walker said. Firefighters arrived within minutes and found heavy fire and smoke coming from the roof of the building.

The home was vacant when the blaze started.

Michelle Templin, director of community engagement for Volunteers of America Utah, said the organization bought the home last winter and was completing the permit process to get the home remodeled. It was to house as many as 14 homeless men between the ages of 18 and 24.

Templin said the organization hopes to have the project completed by December. It would have been the second transition home created by the group, as there is one for women nearby.

"We were really excited to have one for men, and we still will," she said. "It will just take us longer than we had hoped. It's really sad, but we're really happy that no one was in the house."

Walker said crews arriving to battle the blaze confirmed there were no victims in a search of the home. No firefighters were injured fighting the fire.

Firefighters were able to keep the blaze to one building and had it under control within an hour, Walker said.

Neighbor Sean Bennett said his girlfriend woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He said alarms also alerted everyone.

"I could feel the heat coming through the windows. … It was definitely intense heat," he said.

Bennett said he had heard of the plans for the building and was excited for the development in the area. Still, he was glad no one was injured in the blaze.

"Luckily it was vacant and no one got hurt," he said. "A lot of people live in this area. I'm just happy everybody is safe. The building is a loss, but we're all safe and life's good."

Templin said the home was formerly a boarding house, and Volunteers of America Utah had only recently finished relocating all of its residents. The group was mostly planning to make sure the bathrooms and kitchens were up to code before opening it up as a transition home.

"We're really happy that no one was in the house, that nobody was injured," she said, "but we're sad to have this type of setback with remodeling and our goal to get young people off the streets."

Crews were expected to stay at the building much of the day to ensure the fire was completely extinguished. Walker estimated 40 firefighters worked on the fire.

Walker said fire investigators determined the blaze started in the attic of the home, where the electrical boxes are stored. It is believed the cause of the fire was accidental and electrical in nature. The extent of the damage was unclear Sunday.

"I know it was extensive," Walker said. "I'm certain it's at least $80,000-$100,000 in damage."

The fire was largely contained to the upper portion of the home. Walker said there was both an alarm and sprinkler system in the house, but that they didn't activate until the fire spread further down.

"The fire got fairly well-heated beofe the alarm or sprinklers went off," he said.

Templin said the home was insured but fundraising was still taking place for the remodel. Anyone wishing to donate to the project can visit the Volunteers of America Utah website at voaut.org.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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