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Improper disposal of smoking materials blamed for Monday fire in Amherst; January victim died of smoke inhalation

“The official cause is improper disposal of smoking materials,” said Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson Tuesday.

Nelson said the cause was determined by lead fire investigator J.P. Kennedy based on observations made by investigators and statements taken from the three occupants of the unit.

The fire, which began around 1:15 p.m. in a wing of Building 162 at the 188 East Hadley Road complex, caused extensive damage despite lasting less than 30 minutes. The fire floor had smoke damage, Nelson said, and units below it all had some water damage that made them uninhabitable. Health inspectors asked that electrical repairs and cleanup work be done before residents move back in, Nelson said. These could be completed sometime Tuesday.

Displaced tenants were put up at a local hotel by the property management company.

The apartment where the fire began will not be ready for tenants until significant work is done, Nelson said.

“The fire room will have to gutted right down to the studs,” he said.

The department estimates it will cost at least $100,000 for repair work.

Nelson praised the nine firefighters who got to the scene initially.

“The fully involved room could have spread. The first-in crews did a really great job. They got in and knocked it down quick,” Nelson said.

Fatal fire

Meanwhile, Nelson said a University of Massachusetts student killed in fire at an off-campus apartment in January died of smoke inhalation, but the blaze’s cause may never be known.

James E. Hoffman, 21, of Stoughton, was a senior in UMass’s department of tourism management.

Nelson said that the cause of the fire in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 21 remains under investigation, but said “we might never know.” Investigators have said they think the blaze began in Hoffman’s unit.

More than 30 people were displaced by the fire, including 22 UMass students. No one else was hurt.

A spokeswoman said the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which is leading the investigation, has not received a final report on the cause of Hoffman’s death.

Gray Street fire

The cause of a fire that destroyed a Gray Street barn last Thursday remains undetermined. Nelson said investigators are leaning toward concluding its cause was electrical, but are hoping to learn more if surveillance cameras at the nearby high school show something different.

“The place was locked, no one was there, but we’re still waiting on a video from the school,” Nelson said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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