Firefighter injured as heat, smoke halt rescue at deadly fire

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The cause of a deadly two-alarm fire in Sudden Valley early Saturday remains under investigation, as officials Sunday released further details of the incident, including a thwarted attempt to rescue the victim trapped inside.

Elizabeth Wilkenson, 58, suffocated in the 1:20 a.m Saturday fire at 16 Horseshoe Circle, said Dr. Gary Goldfogel, the Whatcom County medical examiner. An autopsy was conducted Saturday.

One firefighter suffered minor injuries as a team from the first engine company to arrive was turned back at the front door by intense heat and heavy smoke, said Chief Dave Ralston of the South Whatcom Fire Authority.

Smoke was banked to the floor on the first level of the two-story home, which has a daylight basement against a hillside, Ralston said.

Ralston, who was the first to arrive, said two residents who escaped the fire told him that a third resident was trapped on the first floor. The first two engines arrived within six minutes, and two firefighters started to search for the woman, he said. He said he was told that she was disabled but that he wasn’t certain about the nature of her disability.

He also said he wasn’t sure if there were working smoke alarms in the home, or how the two other residents escaped.

“When the crews went in, they were met with heavy smoke and heat,” Ralston said. “It appeared that the fire had vented itself from the back of the daylight basement.”

Firefighters changed tactics, pouring water from the outside to control the flames and venting the building to allow visibility for a search, he said. Wilkenson was found dead on the first floor.

Firefighters from Whatcom County Fire District 18 and from the Bellingham Fire Department assisted at the fire, Ralston said.

Ralston said the injured firefighter, whose name was not released, was examined at the scene and continued to work.

“He sustained injuries while attempting the rescue,” Ralston said. “It’s always sad when someone dies in a house fire. We made every effort to get in.”

Two residents of the home, located off Sudden Valley’s Gate 9, suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns, officials said. They were taken by ambulance Saturday to St. Joseph Hospital, where they were treated and released, Ralston said. Because of medical privacy laws, their names and ages were not released.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County fire investigator Mitch Nolze said it might be several days before the cause of the fire, its point of origin and a damage estimate are known.

“It’s going to take some time to sort out the details,” Nolze said.

The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority. He was not involved in firefighting operations at this incident.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty