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Ventura County

Fire Guts Ventura Seniors Complex

Emergency: Officials say arson may have been the cause of an estimated $3 million in damage. The apartments were to open in March.

January 05, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 76-unit senior apartment complex that was expected to open in Ventura in March was destroyed by a fast-moving fire early Friday.

Investigators from the Ventura city and county fire departments said the cause of the fire was under investigation, but that it may have been arson.

"We're considering it suspicious because the building was under construction," said Brian Clark, a deputy fire marshal for the Ventura Fire Department. "It was a cool night, and there were no wires down and it was a fast-moving fire."

Clark said the blaze began about 3:50 a.m. and quickly engulfed the three-acre complex just off Cypress Point Lane, near the county Government Center. He said the building was about 75% complete and encompassed more than 54,000 square feet.

The estimated loss was nearly $3 million, said Clark, who said that 60 firefighters from Ventura and Oxnard as well as Ventura County battled the blaze. There were no injuries, he said.

Firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department were called to join the investigation Friday, using dogs trained in detecting flammable substances. Investigators were concentrating on a front section of the complex closest to a neighboring apartment building.

Witnesses living in that building said the complex, which was loaded down with stacks of wood pallets, drywall and other combustible construction materials, crackled loudly and exploded.

The blaze spread so fast, according to some witnesses, that many who were jolted from their beds barely smelled smoke before seeing giant orange flames leaping into the air. Firefighters responding from Oxnard said flames were visible before they got to the Ventura city limits.

"We thought it was a gun battle because it all sounded like machine-gun fire," said Laurie Lemson, who lives in an apartment complex separated from the fire by a 6-foot-high brick wall. "People were rushing out of here with their animals. It was like nothing I have ever seen."

Several embers floated onto Lemson's complex and ignited small fires on the shake roof, but they were quickly doused by firefighters. Officials began evacuating residents of the apartment building but stopped when the small fires were put out, Clark said.

Four hours after the fire started, most of the flames were out, but firefighters on extended ladders continued to pour water on the charred structure.

Stunned workers and officials from the Lancaster-based construction company heading up the project talked with firefighters as insurance adjusters and agents waited nearby.

"It's a sad thing," Oxnard electrician Richard Marquez said. "It's hard for me, especially with bills to pay and a kid on the way."

Officials with the construction company, Atkinson & Associates, said that at least 45 people have been working at the site everyday since work began last summer.

The complex is operated by Sunrise Assisted Living, a McLean, Va., company that has built about 190 such facilities in the United States and abroad, said Dwight Spargur, executive director of the Ventura complex.

The units were to rent for $1,700 to $3,900 per month. The facility would include full medical care.

Spargur said the senior living complex was set to open March 15. An open house was scheduled for the facility this weekend, with tours of the completed sections. As of Friday, nine units had been rented, Spargur said.

Six people had been hired to work at the facility, and Spargur had expected another 40 to be hired by the opening.

"We have a number of applications on file, but it's all on hold until we know the next step, and right now it's too early to tell," Spargur said.

He said people that have signed up to rent apartments in the senior complex will be placed in similar facilities in Ventura County.

The burned building was part of a six-acre development under construction next to the Vons supermarket at the intersection of Victoria Avenue and Telephone Road.

The senior complex was the first phase of the development, which will eventually include several restaurants and a day-care center, said Ben Lingo, a Westlake resident and one of the investors in the property.

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