Nearly half of the 70 residents left homeless by an early morning apartment complex fire on Tuesday are refugees who fled war-torn Myanmar in search of new lives.
In all, five people were hurt, and dozens – including children – were displaced by the fire that heavily damaged one of the two large buildings that make up Ashley Lane Apartments in southeast Wichita.
None of the injuries was critical, Capt. Stuart Bevis said.
The affected residents included 28 war refugees, eight families in all, several of whom lost all of the meager possessions they owned or had earned here, said Shannon Mahan, executive director of the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry. Saw Moe, one of the refugees, found the roof on fire, called 911 and then evacuated his family and warned others to get out, Mahan said.
Moe and his family were featured in December in The Eagle in a Christmas story in which Moe described his love for America, how getting out of Myanmar saved their lives, how they had a newborn son and how he wanted to get a job and get off assistance as soon as possible.
Burned in the fire, Mahan said, were all of Moe’s few possessions, including clothes and furniture. Burned also, she said, was the flag of Moe’s Karen ethnic group that he’d brought with him from Myanmar and the video he made on the day of his son’s birth in America, telling the boy of his love for their new country.
“When I talked with them, they said, ‘We have worked so hard for how little we have,’ ” Mahan said. “They need help.”
The military government of Myanmar has persecuted and killed Karen tribal people for years, Mahan has said. Thousands, including Moe, fled for their lives to Thailand and applied for refugee status, which is how they ended up coming to Wichita with the help of the Episcopal group, Mahan said.
Among those displaced, Mahan said, was at least one woman from Myanmar who is 16 weeks’ pregnant. The other families all have children under the age of 1, she said.
The fire was reported at 5:36 a.m. at the complex at 2250 S. Oliver, a Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor said. Fire crews first on the scene requested additional units within minutes of arrival, with flames reported on the roof and both sides of the building.
The building was evacuated and the Red Cross alerted, the dispatch supervisor said. Mahan said among those responding to help were people from nearby Sharon Baptist Church, which opened its doors, meeting rooms and playground, and from Reformation Lutheran Church.
The Red Cross opened a shelter at Allen Elementary, 1881 S. Elpyco, for those displaced by the fire. The disaster action team will continue to work with residents and community partners to meet individual needs, spokeswoman Marena Assarsson said via e-mail. Victims’ pets are being assisted by the Sedgwick County Animal Response Team.
One of the five people hurt in the fire refused treatment at the scene. The other four were taken to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, Bevis said.
Firefighters took on a defensive posture at 6:10 a.m., the dispatch supervisor said, meaning they were working not so much to save the building as to prevent it from spreading to surrounding structures.
The fire was contained by early afternoon, Bevis said, but hot spots were flaring up, so crews may be monitoring the damaged building late into the night.
The fire appears to have started in the upper floor on the west side of the Building 8 section of the structure, Bevis said. But it was too dangerous for investigators to get to that part of the structure, he said, so a cause had not yet been pinpointed.
Damage was set at $1.75 million for the building and its contents, he said.
“I would be surprised if they were able to salvage the building,” Bevis said. “When you have that much damage.”
The entire building, which houses 48 units, “is not going to be livable for an extended period of time,” he said. “We basically have the roof off that entire building.”
By afternoon, Dean E. Wolfe, the 9th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Wichita, made a public plea to help the refugees. In a message forwarded to the newspaper by Mahan, Wolfe wrote: “Three of these families lived in the building that was a total loss, and they have lost everything they own. Two of these families arrived here a year ago, and the third had been here only a month. One of our refugees was the person who called 911 to alert the fire department, and he suffered minor injuries in an initial attempt to put out the fire.”
In the message, Wolfe asked that donations be sent to:
Refugee Fire Fund
The Episcopal Diocese of Kansas
835 SW Polk St.
Topeka, KS 66612-1688
Mahan also said donors can call the local Episcopal refugee office at 316-977-9276.