Split in chimney flue to blame for townhouse fire?

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MESA, Ariz. -- A split in the metal of a chimney flue might be to blame for an early morning fire that ripped through a Mesa townhouse building Monday.

It happened at about 5 a.m. near Alma School Road and University Drive.

Fire crews believe it started in a fireplace in one of the units at the Discovery at Sunrise townhouses at about 4:45 a.m.

John Williams spotted the fire as he was taking out his trash. He quickly alerted his neighbors.

"Me and the paper-delivery guy started knocking on doors, trying to get everyone up and out," he said.

The fire commander on the scene told 3TV's Ryan O'Donnell that he believes a separation in the metal tubing that is the chimney flue allowed the smoke and flames to get into the attic and spread throughout the building.

That little gap in the tubing was likely caused by movement of the building structure as it settled over time.

Another factor might have been the size of the fire in the fireplace. Firefighters say small fireplaces are not designed to handle big, roaring fires.

"You can create enough fire to cause your fireplace itself to catch fire," Capt. Forrest Smith of the Mesa Fire Department told 3TV's Javier Soto in early December when offering safety tips for people who were using their fireplaces for the first time this season.

A large fire in a small fireplace can quickly explode into something very dangerous, and it's an ongoing problem.

“Most people don't know that once a chimney fire starts, it is very difficult to put out,” Smith explained to 3TV's Fields Moseley just last week when they talked about the risks inherent in using a fireplace.

Eight or nine engines from both Mesa and Tempe responded to Monday morning's condo fire. It took crews about 40 minutes to get the flames under control.

Three of the five units in the building were badly damaged. The two units that shared the chimney sustained both fire and smoke damage while a unit below sustained water damage.

As many as seven people were displaced, including Cam Lattner, whose bedroom shares a wall with the fireplace where the fire started. He actually heard the fire in that wall before he smelled the smoke or felt the heat of the flames.

"It sounded like a bunch of rats or something crawling around inside the wall," Lattner said.

According to Lattner, his neighbors have fires all the time.

It's not clear if the fire in the fireplace was left over from Sunday night, which was a no-burn day, or if it was lit Monday morning, when burning was allowed.

Both the Mesa Fire Connectors and the Red Cross are assisting the residents affected by the fire.

Although there was extensive damage to the building and several people lost everything, no serious injuries were reported.