Officials: Cooking accident caused Waupelani apartment fire

Investigators confirmed Wednesday that the cause of a massive fire that left more than 40 people homeless in the Waupelani Heights apartment complex was accidental.

Steve Bair, Centre Region fire director, said the July 4 blaze in State College started while a tenant was grilling on an upper floor patio in the rear of the building.

Bair said investigators are working to determine exactly how the cooking accident occurred, and an official report isn’t expected until next week.

The residents who were cooking were among several who called 911 to report the blaze.

Bair said the fire spread quickly. It was only 12 minutes from the first reports of flames to the blaze being declared a three-alarm fire.

“That’s unusual,” he said. “That’s a pretty fast moving fire.”

Flames spread into the building’s attic space and were able to spread across the structure.

Bair estimated about 30 percent of the structure was lost to flames and said he believes there will be similar loss of personal property.

“The bottom line is the fire company did a very good job of stopping that fire where they did and protecting personal property.”

In a letter Wednesday, the owners of the complex, Waupelani Housing LP, and the management company expressed thanks to firefighters and other officials and also to the community, which has rallied around those displaced.

“We ensure the community and residents of Waupelani Heights that we are doing all we can to allow residents legal and safe access to their units, and we are in constant communication with those displaced households,” the owners said in the letter. “The kind and generous spirit of our local community is overwhelming. So many have given to help those whose lives have been disrupted by this devastating fire; we truly appreciate all of the support for the residents who have been displaced.”

The owners said they plan to rebuild once the fire investigation is complete to continue to provide affordable housing for the community.

Bair said it could still be some time before residents can get into the building to assess damage and recover possessions.

“Until you get your stuff, it’s hard to recover,” Bair said.