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Criminal inquiry into fire begins

A criminal investigation began into a fire Wednesday that caused about $60,000 in damage to a vacant apartment and forced a neighboring family from their home, officials said.

The fire started in an empty two-bedroom unit at the Stonegate Apartments at 31177 U.S. 19 N just before 3 p.m., said Scott Magness, deputy fire chief for the Dunedin Fire Department.

Arson investigators from the state fire marshal's office and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office were called to the scene.

"They're not prepared to call it arson, but certainly it is a criminal investigation at this point," Magness said.

About 50 firefighters from throughout North Pinellas responded to the fire in the apartments just north of Curlew Road. They extinguished the blaze fairly quickly, Magness said, and kept the fire from spreading into the attic or neighboring apartments.

"The crews did a really good job of getting it under control," Magness said.

Firefighters went door-to-door to make sure everyone had evacuated the building. After extinguishing the blaze, they ripped through the apartment's ceiling to make sure the fire had not spread into the attic.

The fire turned unit No. 202 into a blackened shell, with charred pieces of fiberglass sprinkled across the floor.

It caused so much damage that the apartment will have to be gutted and renovated, Magness said.

Duane Davis, 43, who lives in the apartment underneath the unit that caught fire, said he was resting in bed when the fire started and never heard a smoke alarm go off. His son saw smoke coming in through the patio door and got him out of bed, he said.

Sheila Rivera, investment manager for Pinnacle, which manages the Stonegate Apartments, said water damage from the fire will force Davis and his family to temporarily relocate to a furnished guest apartment in the complex.

"They'll be staying there until we can put their apartment back in living condition," Rivera said.

Neighbors throughout the 20-building apartment complex smelled the fumes.

"The smell was so strong that I thought it was in my apartment building. I was so nervous, I went out to look," said Linda Fee, who lives down the street. "I just saw lots of smoke coming from the roof."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichetsptimes.com or (727) 771-4307.

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