Four students escape SLO apartment fire — but smoke detectors didn’t wake them up

Four residents of a San Luis Obispo apartment narrowly escaped a fire early Friday morning — an incident made more dangerous because smoke detectors didn’t alert them to the blaze, firefighters said.

The San Luis Obispo City Fire Department responded at 4:43 a.m. to a blaze at the Lee Arms apartment complex on the 200 block of California Boulevard near the Cal Poly campus, said Matt Lipson, a firefighter and paramedic.

Firefighters arrived on scene to find a first-floor apartment with a room and its contents on fire, Lipson said. Crews were able to control the flames early, which kept it from spreading to other units in the complex, he said.

The residents of the apartment are all students, the apartment manager said. One suffered minor burns and was treated and released at the scene, Lipson said.

The property manager was able to find the residents another apartment, he said. The other five units in the building were evacuated, but those residents were allowed to return to their units.

“This one, we got really lucky on,” he said. “Somebody smelled the smoke, and it could’ve turned out to be a lot worse.”

The fire was caused by a lit candle on a bedroom nightstand the residents had forgotten to blow out, said incident commander Neal Berryman, a San Luis Obispo City Fire Department battalion chief.

The candle was surrounded by flammable materials, which likely caught on fire, he said.

The residents had also taken at least one working smoke detector off the wall, Berryman said. Firefighters found it in a basket, he said.

One person in the apartment woke up to the smell of smoke and was able to get the other occupants out, he said.

“We could’ve easily had a four-fatality fire,” he said.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the status of the smoke detectors in the apartment affected by the fire.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.