Officials: Heater cause of deadly fire in Milton-Freewater

A heater too close to flammable materials sparked the blaze, a fire marshal says.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- Officials have determined the cause of a fire that killed two young children here Tuesday.

A portable heater is being blamed for the blaze that quickly tore through an older, single-wide mobile home midmorning, killing Olivia Wilson, 16 months, and Eva Wilson, 4 months.

The fire started because flammable items were too close to a space heater set up in a bedroom, explained Scott Goff, deputy fire marshal for Umatilla County.

While the fire has been ruled accidental, the Umatilla County's Sheriff's Office is working with state child welfare professionals on other aspects of the case.

The advanced age of the home, at 1501 N. Elizabeth St. in Locust Trailer Court, "helped the fire get really big really fast," Goff said.

When emergency responders arrived, flames were already "coming out of every opening," he added, citing reports from Milton-Freewater police and rural fire officials.

The home had no fire suppression system. Although officials were told the house had smoke alarms, "we did not find evidence of any and they were not a factor in the discovery of the fire," Goff said.

The children's parents, Rita Pancoast and Hermillo Castillas, were not at home at the time of the fire. A brother, 13 year-old Darius Wilson, was home sick from school, his father said, and managed to escape without injury.

Would-be rescuers tried in vain to gain access to the back bedroom where the baby and infant were.

The state medical examiner will decide whether to perform an autopsy or a blood draw to determine the exact cause of death, Goff said.

There is no question the fire was an accident, said Sheriff John Trumbo. "There is some question about the victims' mother and whether she was properly supervising her children. We're working with DHS. Apparently they have worked with mom before on some issues."

His officers have also visited with Pancoast, he said.

The family is staying with area relatives, said Sharon Neuvirth, district disaster specialist with the Pendleton office of the Oregon Trail chapter of the American Red Cross. Her office will be following up to help the family with resources.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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