Fire at North Austin group home ruled intentional

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by JESSICA HOLLOWAY / KVUE News & Photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

kvue.com

Posted on September 23, 2013 at 6:35 AM

Updated Monday, Sep 23 at 5:05 PM

AUSTIN -- 27 special needs residents are without a home after one of them intentionally set fire to her room. 26 year old Becca Gallardo is charged with first degree arson. She was a new tenant at Hannah’s Place off Running Bird Lane in North Austin.

Firefighters say the suspect was a client at the house. The operator, Terrie Smith, identified her as a woman who moved into the house a week ago. The client shared a room with five other females. Firefighters say they were all in the room when the fire started around 6:00 a.m.

Smith says a staff member at the house saw smoke coming from underneath the door, went in, saw the fire and screamed for help. All 27 residents and three staff members got out safely and called 911.

Firefighters knocked the flames out within 10 minutes. Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck says investigators later discovered that the fire alarm system at the house wasn't working. Smith acknowledged the failure and says it had been out for about two years. She says she didn't have the finances to upgrade the system.

“We tried to get it repaired, get it fixed, get it on. We talked to several people about the situation,” explained Smith. “It just didn't happen. It's not that we didn't want it on, it was a cost that came behind it.”

Buck says the AFD issued Smith a citation for failure to maintain an alarm system. He says City of Austin Code Compliance Officers will now inspect the home. Until it’s cleaned and brought up to code, no one will be allowed to return. The fire caused an estimated $75,000 in damage to the structure of the house and burned $25,000 worth of contents.

Smith says she will move everyone to another home while repairs are completed and will keep the group together. The American Red Cross is helping.

Investigators are still speaking with the client accused of setting the fire to determine why it was set. They say it was intentional.

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