Careless smoking fire leaves many homeless

18 units destroyed or left uninhabitable by fire at The Orchards at Four Mile

The Orchards at Four Mile, Walker, fire
Fire damage at The Orchards at Four Mile in Walker. (July 5, 2017)


WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) — A fire at The Orchards at Four Mile apartment complex in Walker 10 days ago left dozens homeless and without their possessions.

The fire sparked at 916 Four Mile Road NW, west of Alpine Avenue, on the afternoon of June 26. By the time Walker firefighters arrived and began to spray water, flames were shooting out of the top of building.

Once everyone was safely extracted, including two cats and two kittens, fire investigators from Walker, the state and insurance companies started to look at what caused the blaze.

“We made a determination where the fire started, which was right next to that balcony for 3-B in 916,” Walker Fire Department Chief Robert Walker told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday.

Walker said investigators used cellphone video provided by spectators and interviews from residents to determine that a woman who smoking on a third-floor balcony was “field dressing” a cigarette — removing the flaming ash and returning the unused part of the cigarette to the pack to be finished later.

“They just dropped it over the edge, with the wind, where it blew, it must’ve blown that light ash right back into a crevice, then the wind did the rest,” Walker said.

There was a stiff breeze feeding oxygen to the fire and it spread quickly through the structure.

“The conditions were perfect. You could say it was almost a perfect storm,” the chief said. “They may have done it 100 times or maybe a thousand times, and this particular time the conditions were just ideal.”

The investigators performed an experiment using a cigarette to test their hypothesis.

“And our experiment showed it would last about 90 seconds,” Walker said.

The woman whose cigarette started the fire smelled smoke and sounded the alarm. No one was hurt, but the building sustained an estimated $400,000 in damage.

Fire officials say it is very unlikely the smoker will face criminal charges, but she may face civil litigation from those who suffered a loss.

The fire destroyed the four units at the top of the building. A combination of fire, smoke and water damage left 14 more uninhabitable.

Those displaced were helped by the American Red Cross of West Michigan and nearby Orchard Hills Reformed Church provided overnight shelter.

The California-based company that owns the Orchards was able to place people from nine of the units at the three Kent County complexes it owns. The rest have been offered a return of their security deposit or they can wait until there are apartments available.

Of the 18 units, only three had renter’s insurance. James Olszewski is one of those who said he spent about $25 a month for the coverage.

“I was in the second floor, 814 2-A,” Olszewski said. “If you don’t have renter’s insurance, I highly recommend that you do get it — you never know.”

He said his insurance is putting him up in a hotel and doing an inventory on his stuff to see what will be replaced.

==Above, Brian Boer of Boer Insurance Group in Grand Rapids explains why renter’s insurance is a good investment.==

Others saw their worldly possessions destroyed.

“Pretty much everything’s just gone,” said Anastasia Hartman, a mother of two boys ages 6 and 8.

She said after she appeared on 24 Hour News 8 the day of the fire, she has gotten some donations from viewers, including a Meijer gift card.

“I’m just taking it day by day. I’m grateful for everyone that is donating everything,” she said.

The Orchards is taking donations of new items and gift cards at the office and local businesses and the Walker Police Department have also stepped up to help.

“Amazing, amazing. I’m actually quite impressed with how the community and everyone’s come together,” Olszewski said. “It’s really nice to see fellow Americans coming together and making sure that everyone’s taken care of.”

Used items can be taken to the Salvation Army, where they will be sorted.

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Donation resources:

The Orchards Facebook

Salvation Army

Anastasia Hartman GoFundMe page