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West Allis - A cigarette butt that smoldered for many hours on a balcony is believed to have started a blaze that has displaced 93 people and did thousands of dollars of damage.

The fire was in one of the 40-unit buildings of the Morgan Grove Apartment Complex at about Highway 100 and Morgan Avenue in West Allis. Firefighters were called about 7:15 a.m. Saturday. However, fire investigators estimate that the cigarette butt was discarded about 5 p.m. the night before.

Many smokers don't realize that a discarded cigarette butt can sit between floor boards of a deck or between furniture cushions for hours building up heat until fire ignites, said Assistant Fire Chief Jay Scharfenberg.

Even if smokers check hours after flicking a cigarette butt at what they thought would be a safe place, the butt could still start a fire, he said.

"There would not be smoke or fire hours afterward, but eight to 10 hours later, you get fire," he said. In this case, fire investigators believe it took 14 hours for the fire to get going from a cigarette butt that landed on a balcony, he said.

Attic was key

The fire spread to two apartments, but what did the real damage was the fire getting sucked up into the attic through the roof overhanging the balcony, he said. Once in the attic, the fire really got rolling, heavily damaging the roof and causing structural damage to the roof supports, Scharfenberg said. Firefighters were able to save many of the apartments.

Although flames were everywhere when they arrived, it took firefighters 45 minutes to contain the blaze, Schfenberg said. All the tenants escaped without injury, but one of the first firefighters on the scene had to be treated at a local hospital for a heart problem that arose as he worked furiously to battle the blaze.

Help needed

To help the families, some of which have children in the West Allis schools, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District and the larger community are organizing support. Families from Mitchell Elementary, Hoover Elementary, Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate, Lane Intermediate and Nathan Hale High School, as well as other schools are impacted, said Brian Vissers, district spokesman.

The district has opened its community closets at Horace Mann Elementary School and at Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate School to provide clothing to fire victims. The district also is collecting donations of gift cards to Pick 'n Save, Target, Walmart and gas card so the families can buy necessities. Donors are bringing and sending gift cards to the WAWM School District Administration Building at 1205 S. 70th St., West Allis, WI 53214 to the attention of Cari Krueger on the fourth floor. All gift cards will be distributed to families through the community closets.

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