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Fire, Fire!

History of fires in the Univ. of TX West Campus, and at co-ops elsewhere

by Michael Bluejay • Last update: October 21, 2023

Stevens House Co-op,

The West Campus neighborhood next to the University of Texas is a tinderbox. Student housing goes up in flames with frightening frequency. The co-ops themselves have numerous suffered devastating losses to fire.

I mention this because many co-opers don't seem to appreciate the importance of fire prevention and safety. They blow off requests from house maintenance officers to check their smoke detectors or remove junk that blocks fire exits, or they dump flammable crap in the basements, right next to a gas heater that says in big bold letters DO NOT STORE ANYTHING WITHIN SIX FEET OF THIS EQUIPMENT.

What they don't realize is that when a house burns down, everybody pays, even if no one happens to die. For starters, the students lose their belongings, and we're not insured for that. (Insurance companies won't insure personal belongings, just the building and the ICC-owned equipment.) Also, rebuilding after a fire costs us money, even though we have insurance, because insurance doesn't cover everything. (Insurers won't give us full coverage because of all the fires we've had, and that the neighborhood has had.) Everyone in ICC is paying more now because Arrakis burned down. (more on the cost of the Arrakis fire...)

To show just how common West Campus fires are, I'll start documenting them here. The list below is by no means exhaustive.




2009, Jan. 29

House of Commons Co-op
(2610 Rio Grande)

Co-opers managed to set their house on fire again, resulting in everyone who lived there losing their home. (link 1, link 2)

2004, Oct. 13

New Guild Co-op
(510 W. 23rd)

A co-oper set a pot of grease burning on the stove and then left. Another co-oper comes in and sees flames, use the fire extinguisher, a flash fire starts in the vent hood, and then the suppression system kicks in. A huge mess to clean up and $1000 to recharge the equipment.

2004, Mar. 31

Buckingham Square Apts.
(32nd & King)

Five alarm fire, 28 fire trucks, 77 firefighters, 80 residents left homeless (more)

2001, May 1

University Towers
(801 W. 24th)

Fire left one student dead.  I lived here in the 1980s.

2000, Dec.

Arrakis Co-op
(2212 Pearl)

Completely destroyed home, most co-opers possessions lost, raised room rates for remaining co-opers substantially   (newspaper article on the fire)


Seneca Falls Co-op
(2309 Nueces)

An attic fire had the normal effects: it displaced co-opers and made room rates go up to pay for the damages.

1996, Dec. 13/14

Centennial Condominiums
(501 W. 26th)

$15 million in damages, more than 300 students and other residents left homeless, major loss of possessions. Building was devastated and had to be torn down to the ground before being rebuilt. (more at AFD site, UT spotlight site)

1996, Oct. 16

UT Welch Hall
(24th & Speedway)

"A six-alarm fire at Welch Hall was the last straw in a long series of fires, hazmat alarms, and chemical spills that had put AFD firefighters at risk due to lack of safety precautions (the University is not required to conform to the City of Austin Fire Code). The fire resulted in Fire Chief Robin Paulsgrove publicly criticizing the University for lack of safety at the hall, which prompted a meeting with AFD and UT officials to address the problems." (from AFD)

1994, March

UT Welch Hall
(24th & Speedway)

Hazmat alarm and five-alarm fire. Fire combined with hazardous materials creating explosions. (from AFD)


West Campus

"A series of fraternity fires plagued the University if Texas, including one that was caused by a discarded cigarette and resulted in one fatality and six injuries." (from AFD)


Prana House Co-op
(2510 Rio Grande)

ICC sold Prana so it could buy HoC. After the sale, Prana burned down.

1973, July 4

Campus Guild
(2804 Whitis)

The original off-campus student housing co-op, built in 1941 by the members themselves. (more on ICC history page)

1967, Jan. 25


Hal Harwell sent this on June 10, 2013:

I happened to come across your page where you reviewed fires at co-ops.  Since I was living at Theleme and in the building at the time of the fire, I can give exact details.
There were 24 students living in the coop at the NW corner of 24th St and Seton Ave. The fire was on Wednesday, January 25, 1967 at about 2:00 AM. It was finals week for the fall semester and several of the students had finished their exams and had gone home. The rest of us had exams the next day. I was up studying for the exams when the fire started. There was a sudden rumbling and immediately you could hear glass breaking. I opened the door to the hallway and it was already filled with fire. My two roommates and I jumped from our second store window, all suffering injuries. We were yelling from the yard for everyone to get out and the men from downstairs started coming out, wondering what was going on, since the fire had not gotten to them yet. The firemen arrived quickly. We started counting heads and finally realized that Ray Short was not with us and that he had not left for home. The firefighters went upstairs to check his room, but could not stay long and did not find him. His body was recovered after the fire was put out.
The cause of the fire was never determined. It was, however, believed that the fire started in a downstairs room that was used only for storage. There was nothing flammable in the room. There was a back door into that room that anyone could have come through to start the fire. I firmly believe that this was a case of arson. A stairway from that room went upstairs and that is why the fire went there first. The walls upstairs were covered with old wallpaper that would burn almost explosively and that contributed to the rapid spread of flames.
After the fire we found another house on Nueces St (I believe it was in the 2500 block) where most of us finished out the school year.  [Editor's note: I do know that Theleme relocated to 1909 Nueces at some point and then became Helios; I don't know if there was an interim house at the 2500 block of Nueces, or whether Mr. Harwell just misremembered the location, and the immediate replacement for the original Theleme was 1909 Nueces.]

And here are co-op fires in other parts of the country




2004, May 25

Stevens House
(ICC Ann Arbor, MI)

Historic co-op house burned to the ground, nothing left. (more, and yet more )

2003, Feb. 2

Cesar Chavez House
(Santa Cruz, CA)

Cost over half a million dollars to rebuild and sixteen months before it opened again. (Articles from Indymedia and UCSC)

2001, Feb. 21

Ofek Shalom House
(Madison, WI)

Two members' cats were killed in the fire. Forced to sell the lot and buy a smaller house. (Articles: One, Two)

Buckingham Square Apartments burns
77 firefighters called to campus area apartments

Updated: 4/1/2004 9:05 AM
By: News 8 Austin Staff

Firefighters worked into the early morning hours to put out a five-alarm fire in central Austin.

They responded to reports of flames coming from the roof of the Buckingham Square Apartment Complex in Central Austin, near 32nd Street near Kings Lane. Flames were first seen from a second floor apartment. About 28 fire trucks and 77 firefighters were called to fire.

The fire has 80 people homeless and a quarter of the complex damaged.

"I threw on a robe, got my dog and ran out," said resident James Bankston. He watched as flames engulfed homes and treasured possessions. "I'm just absolutely terrified at the loss of all of my stuff. My entire life is in those three little rooms."

Many apartment residents felt the same way.

"I've lived there pretty much since 1989. I have about 30 years of stuff in that apartment. Everything I own may be gone," said Sue Fredrickson.

Firefighters responded to reports of flames coming from the roof shortly after 10 p.m.

Within an hour the fire was upgraded to five alarms. It was one of the largest scenes firefighters have dealt with in recent history.


Fire update

Allie Rasmus examines the fire and its effects.

"Usually most fires we're fighting are the contents of an apartment or two. This was a major fire for us," said Austin Fire Department Lt. David Belknap.

Firefighters say remodeling done to the building presented a challenge.

"Initially it was a flat-roofed apartment complex, pitched roofs were added to it later. We did have some problems with that just because the fire got between those two roofs," Belknap said.

Low water pressure from the neighborhood hydrants posed another challenge.

No one was hurt.

"We're going to be here until all their emergency needs are met and obviously the first emergency need is having a place to sleep," said Mark Leoffler of the American Red Cross.

Capital Metro assisted in sending residents to other locations for the night.

But some residents say having a place to stay is just one of many concerns they'll have to deal with in the coming weeks.

"If I have to, I'll start over from nothing. It's just, material things, just material things," Fredrickson said.

Investigators are combing through the building and interviewing witnesses to figure out what caused the fire.

Investigators did not know whether residents would be able to live in the building again in the near future.


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