Waupelani Heights blaze caused by unattended charcoal grill; fire investigators complete report

A charcoal grill left unattended on an apartment balcony and too close to a wall sparked the massive fire that ravaged the Waupelani Heights apartment complex and left 40 homeless in State College, according to the final report from investigators.

Steve Bair, Centre Region fire director, said the July 4 fire likely had been burning for several minutes before it was discovered by neighbors.

Bair confirmed earlier this month that the blaze was caused by a cooking accident, but said investigators were still probing the incident in part to determine exactly how the fire began.

In their official report, which is now complete, investigators found the grill caught a wall on fire and flames spread up into the building’s attic. Once in the attic, the fire was able to spread across the building.

Bair said there was little to stop the flames from getting into the attic, only a piece of aluminum that was destroyed by the fire.

The fire had likely been burning for minutes before the first 911 call was recorded, Bair said. That call came from friends who were visiting residents in a neighboring apartment in the complex.

“The apartments are at a right angle to each other,” Bair said. “They looked out across the backyards and saw flames right away.”

In the weeks after the fire, donations of cash, food, clothing and toys streamed in from the community, but residents were left wondering whether their belongings survived the fire, water damage and collapse of the roof.

Bair said Friday that the building has now been stabilized, and that residents have had a chance to recover some items and assess the damage to their property.

“They were able to salvage a lot of property,” Bair said. “Certainly there were some losses, but they were able to save a lot.”

The blaze displaced more than 40 residents, many of them children. The American Red Cross and other local service organizations have been working to find alternative housing for those affected.

The owners of the complex, Waupelani Housing LP, previously said in a letter that they plan to rebuild and to continue offering affordable housing.

Bair said the tragedy presents learning opportunities.

“Please do not cook on a balcony,” he said. “You have to recognize you are in a small place. There is enough heat in a barbecue grill to set a building on fire. There is the proof.”

He also urged renters to purchase insurance, which many in the Waupelani Heights complex did not have.

“I think a lot of people have come to regret that,” Bair said.