Residents battle house fires amid burning debris from CityPlace blaze

As burning debris fell Monday on homes south of College Boulevard, residents scrambled to stop fires where they could or help neighbors whose homes were ruined.

More than a dozen house fires started up throughout the Overland Park neighborhood, according to fire officials, caused by debris from a massive fire at an apartment building under construction at the multimillion-dollar CityPlace development at the southeast corner of College Boulevard and Nieman Road.

The fires spread about a mile south from College Boulevard to 117th Street, through a network of cul-de-sacs, leaving ash marks on sidewalks as the streets filled with fire trucks from at least a half-dozen jurisdictions. For hours, residents walked the streets watching the fires.

Many had returned home from work or errands and found their cul-de-sacs blocked by police cars. Most found their homes largely untouched by the falling embers, or managed to put out small fires with a garden hose.

Others, such as Troy Douglas, watched their homes burn.

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“I guess we’ll see how good my insurance is,” Douglas said as he took photos of his house near 115th Place and Ballentine. Through broken windows, he could see firefighters move around inside.

Douglas had just moved into the house in December with his wife and two children, who escaped the fire.

“I’m thankful that nobody’s hurt,” he said. “It’s a house, we can always rebuild.”

The family would stay with in-laws Monday night, Douglas said, and he would go to the store to buy clothes for work the next day. He said he didn’t know what would come next. “I’ve never been in a fire before.”

The eight-alarm fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. Monday in a four-story unoccupied apartment building in the CityPlace development. That building was destroyed. An adjoining apartment building under construction also caught fire and was still burning hours later.

In a cul-de-sac on Reeder Street, Juan Roque stood in his driveway, where his home had been left without a scratch. He had been there when the fire started. “It sounded like a big explosion,” he said. Then burning debris started falling all around.

Roque’s neighbor’s home burned almost completely. Hours after the fire started, the homeowner walked around her house surveying the damage. The homeowner, who declined to giver her name, said she had been living there for 10 years.

“It all happened pretty fast,” she said. The resident didn’t realize her house was on fire until she went outside and met a firefighter on her front porch.

“The way they put it to me was, ‘Your second floor is now on your first floor,’ ” she said.

A couple of blocks to the south, Steve Sander said he grabbed a hose when he saw a large chunk of burning material land on his roof.

“It started to smoke,” he said, and he climbed up to douse it with water. “The stuff was everywhere.”

Neighbors with garden hoses tried to save Douglas’ home but couldn’t reach the flames inside. It had taken fire crews 20 minutes to get there, possibly because of the large number of fires.

Other residents took to carrying bottled water to fire crews and neighbors. Vivek Panchananam, 20, grabbed a case of water from his house and walked it down the street for the police officers directing traffic at College Boulevard and Nieman Road.

“We felt like we just had to help in some way, and there were a lot of law enforcement officers here who were out in the heat,” said Panchananam.

His neighbor Kathy Markley, who has lived in the College Hill neighborhood for about 20 years, drove to Hen House up the road and bought four cases of water.

Workers at the store helped her load the water, and onlookers helped her carry the heavy cases to the fire scene.

“Everybody was pitching in. It was just wonderful,” Markley said.

Neighbors recalled the days before CityPlace started being built, when the property was farmland where people gathered to watch the Overland Park Fourth of July fireworks display.

“This is one of the biggest fires I’ve ever seen,” Markley said.

Kim Chavez was at work in downtown Kansas City when a friend called and told her about the fire.

“I just started to bawl,” Chavez said. “I knew my house was close or it had been hit.”

Chavez said her boss drove her home and dropped her off a few streets away because of roadblocks.

Her house was spared. Fire destroyed the back wall of a home next door.

“I’m so grateful,” Kim Chavez said. “I was just expecting the worst.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Lisa Gutierrez: 816-234-4987, @kcstargazing

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