Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

Packed with belongings and extension cords, Holiday home catches fire

HOLIDAY — The house was packed from floor to ceiling.

"Clothes. Handbags. Books," Pasco fire investigator and deputy Joseph Valente said. "You name it — it was stacked."

A fire at 3104 Merita Drive in Holiday Lake Estates erupted about 3:30 a.m. Friday. Neighbor Joseph Meek woke up confused because it looked like daylight outside his bedroom window, bright and orange. Meek, 80, walked outside and saw his neighbor, 57-year-old Dina Bowler, standing in her back yard trying to put out the fire with a garden hose.

"I called 911," he said.

Bowler had at least half a dozen cats inside the one-story home. The cats are believed to have escaped the burning house. "We did not recover" any deceased cats inside the home, Valente said. Bowler was not injured and did not want to speak to the Times on Friday. Natasha Salazar, spokeswoman for the Tampa chapter of the American Red Cross, said the agency provided Bowler with three free nights at a hotel.

"We will continue to work with her until she has a new place to stay," Salazar said.

Neighbor Barbara Smokler said Bowler has lived in the house for more than a decade. She used to work in event planning but became disabled after a stroke, Smokler said.

"She lives a quiet, private life," Smokler said.

Bowler is not married and treats her cats like her children. Smokler said she'd often see Bowler sitting on a chair on her front porch, rocking one of her cats.

"She's really a nice person," Smokler said. She hasn't seen Bowler since the fire.

"I'm concerned," she said. She doesn't know how Bowler will clean out the house. Valente said about 60 percent of the house was damaged by fire, smoke and water.

The fire began in the cat room, a screened-in sunroom in the rear of the house. Valente said the cause of the fire was electrical. "She had 12, maybe 13 extension cords" running from that room to the main house, he said. Possibly that was because the other rooms were so packed with belongings that the outlets there weren't accessible. Some of the extension cords were "two feet underneath debris," Valente said.

It took Valente and a few firefighters more than two hours to dig their way to the floor of the room so that Valente could investigate the fire's cause.

"It had been piled up for years," Valente said.

He said Bowler is lucky to have survived. Not only were the extension cords a hazard, but Bowler could have easily been trapped inside the house.

"I think she realizes now what could have happened," Valente said.

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