Devastating fire leaves family homeless

Doug Comstock stands in his blackened living room. The family is in temporary shelter in two Maury Island cottages. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Doug Comstock stands in his blackened living room. The family is in temporary shelter in two Maury Island cottages.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Doug Comstock had a sunny outlook Monday afternoon, despite the fact that his Ellisport home was gutted by a fire two days before and he didn’t know where his family of seven would be sleeping in a few days.

His family escaped without a scratch from the Saturday evening blaze, which began in the laundry room and quickly spread, ravaging the attic, living room, kitchen, family room and two bedrooms. Comstock said what matters most is that his family is OK. A cat died in the fire, though three other felines and the family dog made it out alive.

“There’s not a man or a woman who wouldn’t trade his house and everything in it for his mate,” said Comstock, 65. “The important thing to remember is this — a house can be replaced, but people cannot.”

Comstock’s Ridge Road home was the site of Vashon’s third residential fire of the month, a high number for the start of the year, fire officials said.

“Typically, that’s pretty close to our max for the year,” said Bob Larsen, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief.

January’s other two fires were both heating-related, he said.

Walking through his blackened living room on Monday, Comstock pointed out a bookshelf holding his prized books, next to a curio cabinet with his wife’s knick-knacks — all of which were charred and ruined. He then walked through the small kitchen, which was black from floor to ceiling and soggy from being blasted with water days earlier.

Comstock walked past a picture window that blew out when the fire tore through the kitchen and shelves full of scorched cans and boxes of food.

“Are you hungry?” he joked. “It’s already cooked.”

He shined a flashlight from the kitchen toward the laundry room and the dryer — the culprit of Saturday’s devastating blaze.

The contents of the dryer were ignited by a clothing item made of synthetic fiber — perhaps pantyhose, Comstock said.

Comstock attempted to block the fire’s spread, blasting the dryer and its exhaust vent with the contents of an entire fire extinguisher. Even so, the flames spread too quickly to be contained and ran rampant in his single-story home.

“The fire took off faster than I could ever imagine,” Comstock said, shaking his head.

All told, the fire caused about $200,000 in structural damages and ruined almost all the Comstocks’ possessions, according to a project coordinator who helped to board up the house. Insurance should cover the damages, Comstock said, though he’ll miss the irreplaceable items, such as his collection of books.

The roof collapsed in some places; the bedroom closest to the laundry room was charred throughout, and the stench of smoke lingers throughout the home.

Comstock said when he returned to the home to retrieve some clothing that had not been burned, it smelled too bad, and he left it behind.

“I’m very, very sad, and it hurts me deeply,” he said. “We’ll have to rebuild most of the house, and we can’t live in it until then.”

He’s hoping, he said, his house will be “up and running” in three months. Until then, his family will need a short-term rental.

Since the fire, the Comstocks have been staying in two cottages owned by Swallow’s Nest on Maury, thanks to housing vouchers from the Red Cross.

“With fire damage, depending on how extensive it is, they could be in temporary housing for several months,” said Bob Keller, who calls himself Swallow’s Nest’s “head swallow” and has accommodated several fire victims over the years.

“With fires, you walk into these places and it just feels dark, and that acrid smell,” Keller said. “It’s just like your whole life is torn apart. I’ve dealt with it several times, but not from the standpoint of my own home.”

He said he hoped the Swallow’s Nest could continue to help the Comstocks, though being split into two cottages is not ideal.

By mid-week, the family — Doug, his wife Judith, their daughter Randy and four grandchildren ages 8 to 15 — may need a place to stay, Comstock said.

“Am I worried? No,” he said. “Why am I not worried? Because a lot of people at my church said they’d take care of us.”

He’d like to find a rental house on Vashon as soon as possible, he said. The large family needs at least three bedrooms, preferably more.

More than two dozen firefighters from Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) responded on Saturday, with

the first arriving seven minutes after the Comstocks’ 911 call, said VIFR’s Larsen, who was in charge of the scene at the Comstock home.

Two fire engines, four tenders, two medics, an aid car and a battalion car arrived to battle the blaze, he said.

“It seems like almost every year there are a bunch of fires that get started by dryers and electrical heaters,” Keller said. “Fire prevention is a heck of a lot better than dealing with it from this side, once it happens, so people need to make sure their dryers and vents are cleaned out.”

He added that people should be aware of what is near their electrical or baseboard heaters, keeping combustibles away at all times.

Comstock said he learned a valuable lesson this week. When the dryer first ignited, he discouraged his wife Judith from calling 911, thinking he’d put out the fire completely. But within minutes the fire had jumped up a vent and reached the attic.

He’s lucky, he said, his wife had the common sense to alert officials right away.

“The first time you see smoke, you call the fire department and get out,” he said. “Don’t dilly dally, open doors, mess around with the fire extinguisher. Just get out, and don’t hesitate to call them.”

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