Investigation begins into Gilbert 5-alarm fire

Posted at 5:53 PM, Apr 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-25 16:37:06-04

Black ash is all that remains of much of what was an apartment construction site in Gilbert.

The day before, more than 100 firefighters responded to what would grow to become a five-alarm fire near Gilbert and Warner roads.

Crews remained on the scene Sunday to monitor hot spots as investigators began to look into how it started.

Nearly 24 hours later, those living nearby who had been evacuated were allowed to return to their homes. Residents say it was a horrifying sight, a wall of flames literally right across the street.

Officials said many of the homes will have smoke, water or electrical damage. Authorities kicked in some doors to make sure everyone was evacuated.

Those prevented from returning home were anxious to return.

"They weren't allowing anyone to go near [the scene]," said Alyssa Schnack, one of the evacuees. "This is the closest we've been all day."

"It was panic. It was absolute panic because we didn't know--because it started here where we believe it started, and you can see the road is torched. And so we didn't know how far it was going to come over here in to our house," said Terrye Soto, who lives right across from where the towering inferno broke out.

WATCH: Raw video of Air15 over the Gilbert fire

The flames didn't reach her home, but the heat did, cracking her windows and melting patio furniture and other plastic items in her backyard.

"The street was so hot that I ran out barefooted, and it was so hot that I couldn't even stand on it," Soto said.

Firefighters also said the blaze was hot enough to melt a portion of the road.

Chad Martens and his fiancee got the news that their apartments were in danger while attending a wedding more than two hours away in Heber.

"We were told there were trees on fire, roofs on fire, embers flying all over. They thought that, it felt like it was the apocalypse scene," said Martens.

His fiancee Jade Schweder said she broke down, thinking they had lost everything, including her pet cats.

"I started crying and screaming and I didn't know what to do.  Right in the middle of the wedding, we were distraught," said Schweder.

Shweder said she got home to find her cats hiding in the back room.

"They were distraught and shaking as the alarms were going on all night."

The flames destroyed a building in the complex.  An employee on scene said they were not allowed to answer our questions, and forwarded our request to their corporate office.  Our cameras were not allowed on the property.

PHOTOS: Five-alarm fire engulfs Gilbert construction site

A section of Civic Center Drive, which runs right along where the fire started, remains closed for the investigation. 

"It's pretty scary when you're in your family room and all of the sudden your wife says, 'Come here, you gotta see this' and she runs through the house," said Art Wirtz, who spent four decades fighting fires for the U.S Forest Service before retiring--only to be displaced by the massive fire.

"We got outside and the radiant heat from the fire just hits you like a wall. Our house is about three houses down from the intersection with the main fire, so the radiant heat was pretty hot," he said.

Wirtz said the combination of wood and other dry items at the construction site and the wind created perfect conditions for a major fire.