Neighbors spring into action as embers jump from roof to roof, destroying homes in Overland Park

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Neighbors helped neighbors, neighbors helped firefighters, pets, and so-called latch-key children, as a fire raged at an apartment complex under construction Monday afternoon in Overland Park. After what witnesses described as a 'boom' the apartment complex under construction at College Blvd. and U.S. 69 erupted into violent flames. Within minutes, surrounding homes caught fire as the intense heat from the apartment fire ignited their roofs and the wind carried embers to bring on more destruction.

The four-story apartment complex where the fire started is part of the CityPlace development. Construction employees were inside the building when the fire started with an apparent explosion. They all ran for safety. The fire spread to at least eight homes and could consume still more as the winds continue to spread the fire. Jason Rhodes with Overland Park Fire said "there could be as many as a dozen homes" damaged by the fire.

"It's a bit of a war zone down there," Rhodes said, adding that in his ten years with the fire department, he's never seen an incident of this magnitude. Eight alarms were necessary to fight the fire.

Neighbors realized quickly something was wrong and went to see what they could do.

This resident also helps save some pets inside a burning home.

"We saw the fire from our back door when it went up. There was like a 'boom'. It went up. My husband ran out the house. I'm screaming, 'Make sure that the people aren't...' We thought it was the houses and not the apartment," said this neighbor.

"I heard some guys yelling and I looked up and I saw a fire," said another resident named Todd. "I got some video of it and I kind of watched it until it got too hot. I'd say it went up in about ten minutes. And then all the neighbors. We went and knocked on neighbors' doors. We got people out of their houses and just kind of put some fires out, the small ones, but it was hard."

Todd spoke toFOX 4's Marcus Officer about how the neighborhood responded.

Todd said people were dragging out hoses and ladders to try to put out the little brush fires.

Firefighters evacuated nearby neighborhoods and fought at least a dozen house fires as the fires hopped from roof to roof.  Roads were shut down, making it difficult, although necessary for safety reasons, for residents to get through to check on their homes and children. One resident told FOX 4's Marcus Officer that he ran as fast as he could to get home to check on his son and his home.

"Getting through, first, the police. I parked at the cul-de-sac and I ran across about two miles to get here in about ten minutes. Fastest mile I ever did, I think. I was just thinking 'Oh my God.' I couldn't imagine what my son was going through. Was he okay? Was the house okay? I couldn't care less about the material things. It was more or less him and once I saw he was okay, it kind of transitioned over to, 'What can I do to help my house and save all my valuables," said a resident, Chris, who has a wood shake shingle roof.

Chris says he's so appreciative of firefighters for the work they do, as he sprayed the roof of his home.

The dry conditions and wood shake roofs made containment even more difficult for firefighters, but Rhodes said the intense heat was what initially started adjacent fires.

Jason Rhodes, Overland Park Fire Dept.

“This fire was so big that the heat exposure was the immediate problem to the south. I think as bad as the winds were blowing was just the direct heat. It was close enough to this complex and that fire was large enough that it was literally just heating these structures up to the point of ignition,” Rhodes said.

The vast scale of the blaze left firefighters' resources stretched thin. As crews battled the large fires, homes could be clearly seen in flames with no trucks immediately available to help.

Rhodes said the fact that it was an active construction site elevated the fire risk. Propane tanks exploded and lumber was on site.

“Construction sites are dangerous. That’s why they put fences around them and post them and ask people to stay out,” Rhodes said.

A neighbor with an anxious pet. She says she was told electricity may not be restored until late Monday evening.

The fire spread to homes in the surrounding area, some as far as a half-mile away.

CityPlace is described as a "90-acre mixed use development located in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas in Johnson County. ... CityPlace features four office buildings totaling 600,250 square feet on 26 acres, 1,382 multi-family units on 39 acres, 39,860 square feet of retail space on 6 acres and 140 senior living units."

On its website, CityPlace describes itself as:
"....a vibrant mixed-use community that provides residents the opportunity to live, work and play in one energetic and connected neighborhood. CityPlace features commercial office buildings, residences, retail shops and landscaped trails for those who enjoy an active lifestyle."

There have not been any injuries reported at this time.  Overland Park Regional Medical Center reported it had not received any patients as a result of the fires.

FOX 4 has a crew on the scene. Look for reports on FOX 4 newscasts.