A Planeta Drive home in the Lake Hills neighborhood burst into flames at approximately 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, July 22, with no one home.
There were no injuries, and investigators have ruled out criminal activity. They initially suspected oily rags as the ignition source but haven’t reached any concrete conclusions, said El Dorado Hills Fire Marshal Brad Ballenger, who added that the insurance investigator is now considering several potential sources.
Fire quickly engulfed the 30-plus-year-old wooden structure that was already lost when firefighters from Station 84 arrived just three-and-a-half minutes after getting the call.
An oak tree that overhung the deck was burning, and the fire had already spotted to adjacent wildland in the steep Lake Hills terrain. It eventually jumped across Guadalupe Drive, which forms the property’s uphill boundary.
Engines from other El Dorado Hills fire stations arrived shortly thereafter, with Rescue, Cal Fire and Cameron Park chipping in before it was over. Engines attacked the fire from above and below, soaking the brush and decking around the house, with an eye to protecting two homes on Guadalupe Drive immediately uphill.
The Lake Hills neighborhood in northern El Dorado Hills has been the subject of a lot of fire danger concern this summer, most of it directed at a potential threat from the adjacent, and in some cases overhanging vegetation, in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. The El Dorado Hills Fire District hosted a massive multi-agency training exercise on June 9 that assumed a fire originated in the recreation area, a couple hundred feet from where the house was destroyed.
In a prepared statement, El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts, who was also the incident commander that day, credited everyone involved for an “expedient, coordinated response by emergency workers,” many of whom “recently became familiar with the extreme conditions in this area.”
“We could have easily had a much larger incident with damage to multiple homes,” said Roberts, who credited “well-trained professionals making split second decisions” for limiting the damage to a single structure.
The homeowners were camping with neighbors at the time, but had house guests who offered to refinish the deck, according to Kay Cunningham, who, until Sunday, lived in the home with her husband and son Douglas.
Last Thursday Cunningham, who recently retired after a 36-year teaching career in Roseville, stood in her driveway with the burnt shell of her dream house as a backdrop, and talked about her family’s efforts to piece their lives together since the fire.
Other than a few items that firefighters dragged out of the garage, “We lost everything,” she said. “I’m in a state of shock; I’m mourning.”
She described her house guests applying an initial coat of oil-based sealant on the deck, then leaving for lunch. Because the product was sprayed on they only used two small rags, she said, and took seemingly responsible safety precautions when finished.
In a letter to Home Depot and Preserva products, Douglas, 17, writes that the towels in question were each 1 foot square, and were rinsed in water, wrung out and hung to dry on a metal railing.
He recounts purchasing a quart of the product, and quotes the instructions on the can, which warn that the product “may spontaneously catch fire if improperly discarded,” and instructs users to “place rags, steel wool and waste in a sealed, water-filled metal container” immediately after use.
“As a 17-year-old, I cannot even purchase a can of spray paint without having my ID checked, but I was able to purchase this highly combustible product which has the potential to cause such immense damage without even a question,” he writes. He then appeals to both companies to increase restrictions on how the product is sold.
Ballenger confirmed that oily rags were found responsible for a fire on Vista Mar Drive last summer, but reiterated that no cause has been determined in the current fire.
Cunningham wondered if the deck coating might have pooled beneath the deck, combusting in the 102-degree heat, or if unrelated electrical problems might be to blame.
Everyone agrees that the dry shingle siding and low humidity resulted in the fast burn.
The family returned that evening to the blacked hulk that had been their dream house, and encountered some very distraught house guests. “It was heartbreaking,” said Cunningham. “They felt terrible.”
Like many homes in Lakehills, the Cunningham’s was appealingly woodsy, custom-built in the 1970s before most of modern-day El Dorado Hills existed, with a now-charred oak tree providing a pleasant shade canopy over the deck. Cunningham’s husband created a series of walkways, ramps and platforms running up the steep, landscaped hillside above the deck and home, offering stellar lake views.
“It’s been a wonderful home with great neighbors,” she said, “and we have good insurance; that’s a silver lining.”
The family hasn’t decided whether rebuilding the house will be practical, and has already leased a home in the neighborhood, she added.
Neighbor Richard Slepian and his wife Wendy live above the Cunninghams, and were camping with them when they heard about the fire.
Slepian said he was grateful for the quick response that spared his home any damage, adding that fire from an adjacent home hadn’t been a large concern before. “My biggest fear has always been a fire coming up from the lake,” he said. “I hear them partying down there every Saturday night.”
Cunningham and her husband lived on the second floor of the house, which was fully engulfed when firefighters arrived. Had they been home, she wasn’t convinced they would have escaped.
In a reflective moment, she said, “I guess these things happen for a reason.”