Garage heater blamed for Elk River fire that killed 5 dogs in Steamboat |

Garage heater blamed for Elk River fire that killed 5 dogs in Steamboat

1 pup survived the Aug. 15 blaze

Lauren McLaughlin holds Buddy, who escaped injury from the garage fire.
Matt Stensland

— Buddy the spaniel, the lone survivor of an Aug. 15 garage fire, rolled in the grass outside the burnt shell of the garage Tuesday. Five dogs died in the fire in the Elk River Estates neighborhood, but the owners say they were lucky it wasn’t worse.

Investigators say a propane-powered garage heater caused the fire at the home of Lauren and Don McLaughlin on South Elk Drive.

Lauren McLaughlin said they had unplugged the unit and turned the thermostat to trigger at the lowest possible temperature — she said she didn’t think it could turn on when it was unplugged — but the propane heater fired up anyway. From there, the heater sparked a fire in gasoline nearby.

“We, like everyone else and stupidly, had gas cans” in the garage, she said.

Fire investigator Trevor Guire said that either the gas cans or a nearby lawnmower was the first source of fire.

Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said the plug-in regulated only a fan on the heater, not the heater itself. Without the fan, the heat also stayed concentrated in one corner of the garage.

The fire spread throughout the garage, and neighbors who called in the fire reported seeing flames shooting out of the garage door corners. Because neighbor Cathy Lewis called when she smelled smoke, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters stopped the blaze before it spread to the main house.

The McLaughlin family was camping at the Routt County Fairgrounds at the time as their children prepared to show horses, chickens and rabbits. Lauren McLaughlin said although family members were sad to lose five family pets, the family was also lucky.

“I’m just so grateful we weren’t home,” she said. “I’m also very sad about the dogs. We all are.”

She said she’s keeping her children, ages 9, 6 and 2, away from the house until the garage can be cleared of the kennels. She said the people who removed the dogs said they appeared to die in their sleep, likely from smoke.


Don and Lauren McLaughlin were working with a restoration specialist Tuesday to determine what could be salvaged. She said smoke entered the house by way of the drywall and a door joining the house and garage. Soot and the smell of smoke are spread throughout the house, she said, and the insurance company is working to salvage the furniture.

It will be about six months before the family can get back into the home, she said. The garage must be rebuilt, and some of the drywall in the house might need to be replaced. Lauren Mc­Laugh­lin said the insurance company is helping the family get what it needs. As they wait for the repairs, she said they would either stay in a rental house they have in town or rent another home.

The McLaughlins also have two new additions to their family after buying Zipper and Boots, two border collie puppies they saw at the fair. Lauren McLaughlin said they weren’t looking to buy dogs, but the family stumbled across the puppies from a ranch near Hayden and that they couldn’t turn them down.

“Those guys have brought smiles to everybody’s faces,” she said.

She said she’s also happy that 8-month-old Buddy escaped. Usually the first dog at the door at night, she said she was shocked he wasn’t in his kennel at the time of the fire.

“It must be meant to be,” she said.

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