More Than a Dozen Homeless : Condo Fire Causes $200,000 Damage

Times Staff Writer

A spectacular blaze at a Tustin condominium complex Wednesday caused an estimated $200,000 damage and left more than a dozen residents homeless, the Orange County Fire Department reported.

Capt. Mark Reinhold said investigators Wednesday night were still trying to determine how the fire started in Helen LaForce's condominium, which she and her husband, Bob, have owned for 20 years. The second floor of the LaForces' three-bedroom town house, at 15500 Tustin Village Way, was gutted.

Helen LaForce, 63, suffered hyperventilation as she watched firefighters battle flames at two units near hers, Reinhold said. An official at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana said the woman, who recently underwent brain surgery, was treated there and released Wednesday afternoon. There were no other injuries.

34 Fought Blaze

It took 34 firefighters 40 minutes to control the blaze, which could be seen from the nearby Santa Ana Freeway. The fire was reported about 1:20 p.m. by someone who saw smoke and flames licking from the top of the stucco building. Reinhold said firefighters found the oblong roof engulfed in flames.

Structural damage, estimated at $150,000, was confined primarily to the common wood-shingle roof and attic area of the eight condominiums, part of a large complex called Tustin Village Apartments.

But residents will have to find another place to stay, Reinhold said, because their 20-year-old town houses were left largely roofless, waterlogged and smoke-stained as the charred and smoking shingles collapsed into several of the units. Damage to personal property was about $50,000, Reinhold said. A spokesman for the Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross interviewed the homeless and said that most or all of them would be staying with friends and relatives.

'Roof Kind of Crumbled'

"We had enough manpower to get in and salvage the contents in the end units before the roof caved in but in the center ones they lost almost everything," Reinhold said. "Not from the fire alone; the roof just kind of crumbled and fell on everything all the way across."

A pound of gunpowder in a metal can and ammunition were found in a closet of one condominium, officials said, but they were not disturbed in the fire. The explosives did not spark the blaze, officials said.

Most of the residents who were not home at the time said they heard about the fire either from friends or co-workers who spotted flames and a black plume of smoke from the freeway.

Worried About Pets

"We're still missing a dog and two cats," said Renee Lasch, a 28-year-old employee of a Tustin moving company who heard about the fire from a co-worker and neighbor. She and her husband, Mitch, have lived in the condo for 6 1/2 years, she said, and had just put in new carpeting.

"My cats and my dog, that's what I'm worried about," she said. "We can stay with friends, and we can buy new things. I came up today and she--my dachshund, Animal--was sitting by the fire truck, but I don't know where the other ones are," Lasch said. "We figured we'd be moving from here eventually . . . . I guess it's a sure thing now."

As firefighters squelched hot spots and began mopping up the mess, Thelma Johnson, Mike Price and other displaced residents huddled in a nearby carport and wandered around the complex, hoping to enter their condos and retrieve what was left.

'Worst Part Is Waiting'

"The worst part is waiting and not knowing what it looks like inside," said Price, 29, who lives in an end condominium with his wife, Cheryl.

Johnson and others said that they had heard the fire started in the fireplace, but Reinhold discounted that. So did Bob LaForce, who said that the fireplace came with the couple's condominium when they bought it 20 years ago and that the heater wasn't broken. "The only thing broken in there was my back," LaForce said. " . . . I got two leather chairs in there I lusted for all my life. I don't want anything to happen to them."

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