Residential fire a hard-to-kill, hot and costly mess

The house fire at Sixth and J streets. Photo by Matt Filar | Union

Mad River Union

ARCATA – A residential fire at Sixth and J stress Monday morning, March 16, posed an especially difficult challenge for responding Arcata Fire District firefighters. While eventually extinguished, the blaze and damage caused by putting it out totaled about $358,000 at the $700,000 property.

According to Chief Justin McDonald, the home's residents reported the incident on smelling smoke, though they couldn't locate its origin. By chance, an Arcata Fire logistics unit was only a block away and was able to quickly respond.

Photo by Shea Freelove

On arrival, firefighters learned that the family had fully evacuated the burning home. However, McDonald said, that actually slowed extinguishment efforts. Unless people are inside, OSHA rules prohibit entry to a burning building without two firefighters being available to remain outside and serve as a rapid intervention or rescue team if those inside get into trouble. So, awaiting reinforcements, those first on scene set up the area for response.

Soon, personnel from the Mad River Station arrived, as did McDonald. A water supply was secured and the fire attack begun. The home's first floor was smoke free, but going up the stairs, firefighters encountered hot, thick, black smoke. Upstairs, they had trouble locating any fire.

A third engine then arrived, and firefighters went up on the roof to cut a hole over where the firefighters were located inside, and release the smoke. Unfortunately, their saw failed and they were unable to cut a hole, so they came back down. Them the fire burned through the roof at another location, letting smoke out.

Meanwhile, the firefighters inside the house continued to search for the fire, but without success. "Basically, they were getting their butts kicked," McDonald said. Unable to find the fire, they backed out of the burning home.

Then an engine arrived from Humboldt Bay Fire, and a crew went in via a different route. By this time, the fire had spread to the entire attic, and the crew was able to get water on it.

What complicated the fire attack was that the home had been heavily modified over the years, with a a roof installed over a roof, and several enclosed "voids" created inside the attic. The firefighters had to chop through walls to find the isolated cells, and when they did, flames emerged.

"It took a while to chase down all the pockets of fire," McDonald said.

While combatting the difficult fire, firefighters exhausted their portable air supply, with each engine company going through four to five 45-minute air bottles.

After about an hour, the fire was out. The effort required about 25 firefighters, including seven chiefs, from Arcata, Blue Lake, Samoa and Humboldt Bay departments. One firefighter sustained minor burns to the face, but didn't require hospitalization and was treated at the scene.

Firefighters outside the house. Matt Filar | Union

The cause of the fire was determined to be exhaust from a water heater vent, which somehow set the roof ablaze.

Much of the estimated $358,000 damage was caused by the firefighting effort. AFD lacked the staff to cover sound floor furniture with tarps as would be done were adequate personnel available, so water and pulled down ceiling material fell onto the residents' property. By the time the fire was out, some four inches of water covered the floor.

Unfortunately, the family had no homeowners insurance, and the house was a total loss.

McDonald said the failure of the Measure R funding measure didn't affect response to this incident, since planned layoffs and closures must await negotiations with the firefighters union, and won't take place until next month.

However, in answer to a question, McDonald said the department's response times will lengthen once staff cuts and coverage are reduced. "With Measure R [and its failure] , it's just going to get worse," he said.




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