Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Cause unknown in Deer Park fire

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Crews investigate a fire at the West Deer Park Apartments in Gaithersburg on Jan. 2. Fire officials say they don’t know what caused the early-morning blaze.
An early morning fire last week at the vacant West Deer Park Apartments in Gaithersburg caused a partial building collapse and an estimated $500,000 in damage, according to county firefighters.

The fire was reported by a passer-by and a neighbor about 4:45 a.m. Jan. 2 and it took 30 minutes for about 50 firefighters to get the fire under control, said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services.

Fire officials have not determined the cause of the blaze on West Deer Park Road.

‘‘There was no indication that someone was living there, but it’s always a possibility that we want to eliminate,” Piringer said. ‘‘We know from experience that sometimes in vacant buildings...folks seeking shelter will light a fire” to keep warm.

The buildings, which had been vacant for more than a year, had no power, he said.

‘‘It could be that we never find out the cause because of the damage, that happens from time to time...when the damage is so significant,” Piringer said. ‘‘There was pretty significant structural damage” to a building that housed sections 74-78, which each contained 12 to 14 apartments. Section 76 collapsed entirely, making it difficult for firefighters to investigate, he said

The apartments at 70 W. Deer Park Road were emptied of 198 families in July 2006 to make way for redevelopment with luxury townhouses. But the change in the housing market prompted developer RST Development Company of Rockville to seek city approval to re-lease the units in the same condition under the name Summit Apartments. Final city approval of the request came the day of the fire after RST promised to upgrade the buildings.

Scott Copeland of RST Development said Tuesday that the fire would not impact plans for development.

‘‘We’re working on it as we speak,” he said.