Firefighters responded to a fire that ripped through three homes in the South Ward section of Tamaqua before dawn this morning.

The houses were gutted by the blaze, but no one was injured.

The fire alarm sounded at 5:30 as flames ravaged residences at 132, 134 and 136 Orwigsburg Street. The houses are located several blocks away from Tamaqua Area High and Middle Schools.

Tamaqua Fire Chief Thomas Schlorf said the residences are all owned by John Wassel of Tamaqua and are currently unoccupied.

Reportedly, Wassel's mother Joan lived in one of the homes but moved out about a year ago.

The three story, wood frame structures were rapidly engulfed by the flames, which also extended out onto the exterior power lines.

"When we arrived, it was fully involved," said Schlorf.

The quick response by firefighters managed to get the stubborn conflagration under control.

Residents to either side of the burning buildings were awakened by neighbors, Jen and Arlene Yost of 125 Orwigsburg St. Jen woke to the smell of burning wood around 5:10 a.m., but didn't see any smoke or flames when she looked outside. As the smell intensified, Arlene looked out the front window of their home about 15 minutes later.

"Mom looked out and saw flames shooting out of the windows and doors. Even the utility lines in front of the buildings were on fire," noted Jen. "We, and my fiance, immediately ran outside and began banging on doors. I knew there were small children in the home on one side and an older couple, the Camerinis, on the other side."

The Camerinis had to use the back door to exit their home due to the heavy smoke and flames.

Schlorf said Wassel did not have fire insurance for the properties, which received extensive damage. The Camerini home also suffered extensive water and smoke damage, but was saved through the efforts of firefighters.

At press time this morning, the cause of the fire was still being investigated, as firefighters worked diligently to keep the structures from rekindling.

Responding to the fire were the Tamaqua and Coaldale Fire Departments, Lansford and Summit Hill RIT (Rapid Intervention Team), Pottsville Good Intent and American Hose Fire Companies, Tamaqua Police, Rescue Squad and Fire Police and Tamaqua Ambulance.

Donating food, water, coffee and assistance to firefighters and residents were: Hometown Wal-Mart, the American Red Cross, the Tamaqua Salvation Army, Boyer's Food Mart, Turkey Hill and Burger King.

(Reporter Kathy Kunkel also contributed to this story)