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Evacuation advisory lifted for two apartment buildings due to possible asbestos in debris from fire in Happy Valley

A shelter-in-place alert was issued for 1/4 mile around the fire site Saturday morning, but was lifted in the early afternoon.

HAPPY VALLEY, Ore. — Clackamas County Public Health believes the risk of significant asbestos in a few tests will be low and have since lifted an evacuation advisory notice for two Happy Valley apartment buildings.

Two of the Rosewood Station apartment buildings were under evacuation Saturday evening following a fire that broke out early that morning in a nearby commercial building. Clackamas County officials are warning residents in the area of possible asbestos in the ash and debris scattered by the fire.

In a press release sent out Sunday morning by the county, air monitoring tests from multiple units in the apartment buildings, as well as outside, have all registered below any level of concern for excess asbestos presence. Although testing in one unit remains unclear due to the presence of pet hair/dander.

The county issued a shelter-in-place alert for the surrounding area while fire crews battled the blaze Saturday morning, due to concerns about asbestos in the debris. The fire was under control by mid-morning, and fire officials told KGW at around 1:30 p.m. that the alert had been lifted, although the evacuation order remained in place for the two buildings at the Rosewood Station apartment complex.

Testing remains ongoing for particles on surfaces inside the building units. The county does not anticipate having those results until Wednesday or Thursday. The Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency representatives have inspected inside the buildings as well.

Residents are still welcome to contact the county to secure short-term shelter options if they feel unsafe and they can coordinate that by calling 2-1-1. 

Tenants of those evacuated apartments told KGW that their throats were sore and there was a toxic smell in their apartments. County staff were working to make sure the residents had a place to go, according to a Saturday evening news release from the county, and had opened up an emergency shelter at the Gregory Forum at Clackamas Community College, 19600 Molalla Ave. The county did not say how long the buildings would need to remain vacated at the time.

The county said ash and debris may be resting on the surrounding streets and private property, extending up to a mile away in some directions, and that it's possible the ash contains hazardous materials — specifically asbestos. The county is working to clean up the streets, and said it's not recommended for residents to try to clean up any debris themselves. The county has set up a webpage about the fire, and said residents can also call 211 for more information.

Clean up efforts regarding fire debris has started including streets and surrounding buildings in the area. The county has advised locals to stay away from ash or debris and to contact EOCOperations@clackamas.us with specific details about the location and debris, who will clean it up.

Clackamas Fire and Portland Fire crews were called to 8855 SE Otty Rd at around 3:30 a.m. to combat the 3-alarm fire. According to Clackamas Fire, firefighters were forced to fight the fire from the buildings' exterior due to the threat of partial wall collapse. 

No injuries were reported from the fire, but Clackamas County announced Saturday evening that one person had been found dead inside one of the apartment units during the evacuation. The county said the State Medical Examiner's office has concluded that the death occurred before the fire broke out, and is unrelated.

Miles Fiberglass and Composites wrote on Facebook that the commercial structure where the fire occurred was a former company building that was no longer occupied, and Clackamas County said in a news release late Saturday morning that the building is now owned by the Clackamas County Development Agency.

The county already had a contract in place to demolish the structure, with work previously expected to begin in the next few weeks, according to the news release. Recent testing found asbestos in the building materials, the county said, and the contract was in the process of being adjusted to account for proper disposal.

Neighbors said they often saw people going in and out of the abandoned building. Fires and other incidents have been common at the building.

“Just the other day there was five or six police cars, just parked in there,” said Sean Patrick, one of the neighbors.

Clackamas Fire Department officials said they responded to a fire last week at the same location.

The cause of Saturday's fire is still being investigated.

An alert was sent out Saturday morning to residents and businesses within the radius of the shelter-in-place order. Some residents and business owners said they didn't receive the push alert. Other tenants near the building said they did receive it. Clackamas Fire officials said anyone who did not receive the notification should sign up for notifications on the county website.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in building materials until it was discovered that long-term exposure could cause cancer and lung problems. It remains present in many older structures. Ash and debris suspected of containing asbestos should not be swept, vacuumed or power washed due to the risk that asbestos could be dispersed into the air in the process.

Residents are discouraged from cleaning it up on their own, but if anyone chooses to do so, they should gently soak the debris with a spray bottle or garden hose, then pick it up and putting it in a plastic garbage bag, then seal it inside a second bag, according to information included in the county's news release. People cleaning up the debris should wear the best face mask they have, preferably an N95, wear disposable gloves and wash their hands, arms and clothes afterwards. 

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available. 

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