Updated June 20, 2022 - 9:29 am
A massive blaze sparked early Sunday at town houses under construction in downtown Las Vegas damaged at least 10 buildings, torched dozens of cars, and displaced about 100 residents, fire officials said.
The lone injury reported was minor smoke inhalation, according to the Las Vegas Fire Department, which characterized the blaze as the largest in Las Vegas in the last quarter century.
Officials had not disclosed a possible cause of the fire as of Sunday evening.
But residents and a construction company working to expand the Urban Lofts Townhomes at 200 Tower Street, have had ongoing issues with squatters and people breaking into the complex, located near Fremont Street and Eastern Avenue, said resident Matalie Avila, who escaped the conflagration with her boyfriend and two daughters.
Urban Lofts Townhomes’ project manager, Tracey Hill, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that the fourplex where the flames are believed to have been sparked, was a “sitting duck” for intruders.
For months, she added, NV Energy has stalled the construction project because of an issue with underground power lines.
“We’ve been in talks with them for months,” she said. “(But they) would not let us proceed,” she added, describing the back and forth as “going round and round in circles.”
An NV Energy spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday.
Fire crews spot smoke
Shortly before 1 a.m., fire crews returning from a call spotted smoke billowing from the complex.
Firefighters arrived to find the vacant fourplex fully engulfed, which was “letting off extreme heat.” Realizing that other buildings were threatened, the crews began to wake residents, the fire department wrote in a news release.
The blaze quickly spread to an NV Energy utility pole, and knocked down power lines, causing a large blackout in downtown Las Vegas, the department said.
The flames jumped walls and tore through adjacent businesses and a motel-style apartment complex.
Fire officials said 40 “units” with 140 firefighters, including those from North Las Vegas and Clark County, responded and had extinguished most of the blaze by 6 a.m.
The fire remained under investigation and a full assessment of the damage would not be available for at least a couple of days, according to the fire officials.
Residents seeking shelter were directed to nearby Hollingsworth Elementary, where members of the American Red Cross remained Sunday afternoon.
Caseworkers had assisted residents from four out of the more than 20 units that were destroyed, Rachel Flanigan, executive director of the Red Cross of Southern Nevada, said Sunday afternoon.
Volunteers will remain at the elementary school from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Wednesday, she said.
“This is the largest number of occupied dwelling units involved with fire at the same time in the city of Las Vegas for the past 25 years,” fire officials said. “Other fires consisted of several homes under construction in the past, but they were not occupied. A number of people and at least one business will be impacted by this fire.”
Mayor calls blaze ‘horrific’
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman took to Twitter to comment on the destruction.
“What a horrific incident with the loss of property in the fire this morning,” she wrote. “Thankfully no loss of life or serious injuries.”
Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear echoed the sentiment.
“Praying for all the victims of this morning’s large apartment fire,” he wrote on Twitter, thanking first responders. “God Bless there were no casualties.”
More than 12 hours after the blaze was spotted by fire crews, the smell of burning wood permeated in the breeze, and soggy soot flowed with water through the street. Firefighters continued to douse buildings from an engine’s ladder.
Construction workers sawed plywood that was used to cover broken doors and windows of the units that were not completely ravaged by flames. Melted garbage and recycling reciprocals lay among scorched vehicles.
Lazaro Lopez, of Perfect Auto Body, told the Review-Journal Sunday morning that 35 cars in the yard of the business were destroyed.
The ravaged buildings are located about a mile away from the scene of the deadliest fire in recent Las Vegas history, where six residents died at the Alpine Motel in December 2019.
Residents from a unit that did not appear heavily damaged were seen hauling suitcases as they left. They declined to speak with a reporter.
Matalie Avila was watching TV in her living room when she looked outside her window, she said, and saw a “little red flare” coming from the unoccupied fourplex.
“No one should be living there,” she said, adding that she went outside to check it out.
“Out of nowhere,” she added. “I saw so much smoke.”
“It’s a fire! it’s a fire!” she said she screamed at her boyfriend. She ran to warn a neighbor they know, who was closer to the fire. She banged on his garage door because it was difficult getting to his front door because of the smoke.
She and her boyfriend grabbed their two girls and fled in their car.
“We had no choice,” she said. “We just knew that if we didn’t leave that it could’ve been much worse.”
Their unit was spared from heavy damage, but it could be up to a couple of weeks before the smell of smoke is cleared, she said, adding that her family was staying at a friend’s rental home.
For months, she said, residents have been complaining to the homeowner’s association about intruders. The association is strict about parking, and residents have had their vehicles towed, she said, but “nothing’s been done” to stave off squatters and uninvited people who walk around the complex and search through trash cans.
Hill, the project manager, said that she has told the homeowners association numerous times about the squatter issues.
The association could not be reached for comment.
Once the town homes are sold, Hill said, the situation is out of the construction company’s hands.
Two of the four units where the fire started were under contract, she said.
“We’re just devastated for the loss,” said Hill, standing outside her burned office and next to soaked, rolled-up floor plans. “For all the homeowners affected by this.”