For the third time since November, St. Paul firefighters responded Sunday to a house fire in which a person was trapped in a basement bedroom ­without a safe exit.

In November, a man died and on Sunday, a recent college graduate barely managed to wriggle through a small ­window in the basement bedroom of her parents' house.

"Most people don't know the rules about escape windows, "said investigator Jamie Novak. He said the fire Sunday at 996 Tuscarora Av., had a smoke alarm that alerted Darlene Centeno, 22, but that an alarm isn't enough if fire occurs and leaves only undersized windows or doorways for egress, he said.

"We run into that all the time in basements and attics that don't have safe escape routes. You need two ways out," said Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

Novak said illegal basement bedrooms are often found in older homes where owners have remodeled basements built for furnaces or appliances.

Centeno, who is slim and 5-foot-2, "nearly lost her life in this fire," Zaccard said. "It was only because of her size and age was she able to save herself." He said she didn't normally sleep in the basement but "you never know when this could happen and it happened to her."

Centeno said she was home after just graduating with a teaching degree from St. Mary's University in Winona.

"I woke up to the alarm going off," she said. "I opened the door and I saw a lot of smoke." She said she was afraid she couldn't get out.

But she grabbed some clothes, put a wet towel over her mouth to breathe better, broke the small ceiling window and escaped without injury.

She said her family, which is staying in a hotel, was at church when the fire started.

Her father, Enrique Centeno, was salvaging goods from their home ­Sunday and couldn't be reached.

Novak said the fire was quickly put out and he estimated damage at $80,000. He said five kenneled Chihuahuas died, but a sixth was saved when a paramedic felt a pulse and gave it oxygen. Caged parakeets also died, he said.

He said the fire was caused by a teen who had been smoking a hookah pipe in the basement bathroom. He told Novak that he spilled hot coals and thought he stomped them all out.

In February, firefighters rescued a 9-year-old girl from the basement of a burning house in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. She was hospitalized 10 days from smoke inhalation and burns that left scars, Zaccard said.

The fatal basement fire in November erupted in a house on N. Lexington Avenue, he said. The man's ­mattress caught fire and he tried to drag it outside but it wound up ­blocking the stairway exit.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658