As soon as Elena See and her sister Amelia James stepped out of their home in the early hours of Thursday morning, they knew something was on fire. They could smell it.
“We went outside, and we sniffed the air and noticed something burning,” See said. “We were concerned because the smell was so strong. It smelled like burning wire.”
It was about a quarter past 1 a.m., and two sisters were leaving their home in Switzer Village Mobile Home Park to go downtown when they noticed the smell.
Had it not been for them, their neighbor might not be alive.
Shortly after 1:20 a.m. Capital City Fire Rescue responded to a report of smoke coming from a trailer in the mobile home park, Fire Chief Rich Etheridge said. After arriving at the smoking trailer, firefighters forced their way through the front door to find two small fires and a man, whose name has not been released, lying unconscious on the floor.
The fire crew removed the victim, 29, from the trailer and extinguished the flames. The victim was transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital where a man of his description remains in stable condition, according to hospital officials.
According to Fire Marshal Dan Jager, the fire was intentionally set and the victim is believed to have caused it. The fire started with burning paper products, but there didn’t appear to be any accelerants, Jager said. The Juneau Police Department investigating the event as a suspicious fire.
All told, the fire department estimates that the fire and smoke did about $7,000 of damage to the trailer, but the outcome could have been worse, Jager said.
“Had the fire gotten the chance to grow, it would’ve caught other combustibles,” he said. “The occupant definitely could’ve succumbed to smoke inhalation, and it definitely would’ve been a different, and more dangerous, situation had it not been caught as early as it was.”
Without See, James and her fiancé, Guy Riley, that more dangerous situation likely would have been reality.
After noticing the strange smell, See and James tried to identify its source. After checking their home and finding nothing, the sisters left for downtown, but James remained concerned about the threat of a fire.
“I’ve always heard that trailers go up fast, so we wanted to figure out what the smell was,” James said. “I just knew it wasn’t fireworks. It was too strong.”
James and See called Riley, who was still at their home in Switzer Village, to inspect the situation further. Riley said he agreed because he has a woodworking shop behind their house that he recently rewired, and he feared it could have been the source of the smoky smell.
“I stepped out of the door to see if it was my shop, and, just by chance, I looked across the street and noticed smoke blowing out of the window of a trailer.”
By the time Riley grabbed a flashlight and walked over to the trailer, he said it was “billowing black smoke.”
“I pounded on the window, and I pounded on the door, but nobody answered,” Riley said. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was there because there’s always a bunch of people in and out of that place, but if somebody missed that, they’d really have to had been out of it.”
Riley then called 911 to report the fire.
“When it comes down to it, if it hadn’t been for Amelia and her sister telling me to check it out, that guy would be dead,” he said.
Though Etheridge and Jager both acknowledged that early action likely prevented the death of Riley’s neighbor, they also said that smoke detectors — which were notably absent from the burning home — could have played an important role in stopping the fire had they been installed.