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Discarded cigarette butt caused fire that destroyed Duluth apartment building

People who lived near the apartment building along the 1700 block of East Second Street that burned in a fire Sunday stop to look and take pictures Monday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Fire breaks through the roof on the front of the Applewood Knoll apartments, 1705-1707 E. Second St., on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

A discarded cigarette butt started the Easter Sunday fire that destroyed a Duluth apartment building and displaced 19 families, authorities said Thursday.

“No charges are going to be filed; it was accidental,” said Duluth Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl. “They put it into a container, then the container caught on fire and spread to the building.”

Grondahl described the fire as starting outside the Applewood Knoll apartments at 1705-1707 E. Second St. The building was designated non-smoking and Grondahl said the unwitting smoker had thought they’d put out the cigarette by dispensing of it in “a plastic container that wasn’t meant to be an ashtray.”

Of the fire that firefighters battled for a day and staffed into the week as it continued to smolder, Grondahl said,  “it was outside and went in.”

Several residents have described seeing smoke and fire outside their patios before hearing the blare of the building’s smoke alarms. The fire began about 12:50 p.m., and ended up costing residents nearly every possession. No one was seriously hurt in the fire, though multiple people were hospitalized overnight with smoke inhalation.

Of the 44 people who have been displaced, 23 were children. Residents have been staying in a local hotel while they scramble to line up their next homes — not a simple task considering Applewood Knoll was income-based housing.

“There is already such a small percentage of houses available,” said Major Bill Cox, commander of the Salvation Army in Duluth. “We have a housing shortage.”

Cox said displaced residents — almost all of them families and single parents with young children — each have been assigned a financial case manager with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services. He said the county is assisting with future rents and rental deposits. The county and other agencies, Cox said, have held meetings every day throughout the week to get a handle on recovery efforts. He likened the response to the one after the Kozy Apartments burned in downtown Duluth in 2010, displacing all of its nearly 60 residents.

The Salvation Army is collecting monetary donations, so far garnering $1,300 with a goal of $15,000. Additionally, the Salvation Army has given residents clothing vouchers for its stores and opened up its hot lunch program and food shelf for the residents.

Cox said it will be days and weeks before the residents’ true needs are known.  

“We’re still waiting for clarity on exactly what they’ll need over and above rent and deposit,” he said.

United Way 211 of Duluth has received more than 45 offers from people wanting to donate items; they’re taking names and numbers, said program coordinator Rory Strange, and will be back in touch once displaced residents begin to find transitional or permanent housing.

“We’ve had a real outpouring of people asking, ‘What can I do?’” Strange said. “But right now we’ve got no place to store it and residents are not in position to take all that yet.”

Strange’s 211 colleague, Julia Johnson, said the organization also is in need of volunteers or “people power.”  

“People will need help moving and getting their donations,” Johnson said. “We’ll need people’s time, their trucks, to help get residents settled.”   

Strange said two landlords who work with people requiring Section 8 rental assistance have come forward.

One, Mike Medlin, owns multiple apartment dwellings near the site of the fire.

“It’s not their fault this happened,” Medlin said. “It’s a tragedy.”

Medlin has an apartment opening May 1; so does landlord Steve Claveau. He was driving to pick up his mother for Easter dinner when he saw the fire.

“It all kinda clicked,” Claveau said. “Whenever I get a vacancy I’ve got to go through a process, but why search when somebody is already searching for you? I just thought why not offer what I have and try to help somebody out.”

HOW TO HELP:

Donate to the Salvation Army's fund for fire victims here

Contact United Way 211 in Duluth

EARLIER: 

Duluth apartment fire still smoldering; dozens left homeless

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