Three, they're out

The first blaze was lightning, the second a printer. Friday's came from the attic. What a year.

Published November 18, 2006

TAMPA - Lightning struck the air conditioner in February, sending smoke into the Moraleses' home and the family out.

They returned, only to have a laser jet printer ignite in August and cover the Moraleses' den and their two white dogs with black soot. Once again, they were out.

Monday night, they settled into their Seminole Heights home once more. Then early Friday, with their belongings still packed in suitcases, a familiar, yet unwanted intruder paid them a smoky visit.

Shelby Morales sat straight up and stirred her husband, Alexander.

Three fires in 10 months? No way, he thought.

Flames erased any doubt.

Shelby ran out with 22-month-old Jackson. Alexander grabbed some packed suitcases, a diaper bag, Shelby's purse and some shoes.

He stood outside in his underwear, watching the flames dance through their dream house on N 10th Street. He found a pair of shorts in the suitcase that will once again serve as his temporary closet.

In 31 years in the fire service, Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said he has never seen anything like this.

Three fires. One home. All accidents - the latest caused by an electrical short in the attic, Wade said.

It was enough for Shelby to say she will never return.

"I won't live here again," she said, arms crossed while she watched her husband sift through a garage that resembled the charred mouth of a fireplace. "Three times I'm put out. I won't have any sanity if I live here."

Alexander stood next to a water cooler the fire warped. It was 10:30 a.m., about six hours after the blaze drove them out of their home. The fire still fumed, and Alexander used a meek spray of water from his lawn hose to reach the smoldering attic frame.

His wife wondered why. There was nothing left to save.

"Get out of there, Alex," she told him.

"There's still smoke," he replied.

"Well, let it burn," she said. "What can you do?"

It was mindless busy work, more than anything. He wasn't ready to leave. A landscape business owner, Alexander, 26, built the koi pond in the back. He put in the Mexican tile floor for his wife. He built the deck and repainted the walls.

Shelby, 32, an exterior designer, bought the house when she was 20. She loved its original 1952 wood floors and pink and blue bathroom tiles. She filled it with paintings and silks her grandfather collected sailing around the world as an engineer.

Now, wet ash resembling tobacco juice splatters a living room painting, near an ash-stained ottoman. The Best Life magazine sits atop it, its cover promoting the story: "Live long, live happy."

Alexander looked into the blue sky from a burned hole in the den's roof.

"Look at our new fan," he said, pointing to a ceiling fan dangling from wires. Textured paint from the ceiling hung like stretched chewing gum. Stylish curtains survived. Shelby had begged Alexander to buy them a month ago.

They were the finishing touch to an elegant den. Now, they seemed like a fine robe on a chimney sweep.

Each fire had cost more than the previous one. The first: $5,000. The second: $20,000 in damage. Home insurance covered both. The latest caused about $85,000 in damage, fire officials said, more than half the house's market value.

The renovations from the last fire weren't done when the family moved back. Contractors, repairing duct work, left a live wire in the attic, the Moraleses said.

Insurance investigators will sort it all out while the family moves back in with Shelby's mother. On Friday, a pickup truck sat in the lawn, ready to carry them away. A mountain of clothes, still framed by hangers, filled the bed and a pack of Marlboros rested on the open tailgate.

Alexander kept poking around the den with a stick.

"Things happen for a reason," he said.

His voice seemed to indicate he was going to take a stab at revealing that reason in the next sentence. But then his voice trailed off. He put his head down and sifted through more wreckage, still searching.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.