The second major El Dorado Hills structure fire in what has become a hot and dangerous fire season destroyed a La Cresta Village home on Aug. 8. The family of four was home at the time and escaped unharmed, but their two small dogs succumbed to smoke and perished.
El Dorado Hills firefighters were dispatched at 2:44 p.m. to keep a reported “yard fire” from spreading to either the house or the adjoining dry fields of Rancho Dorado, the large undeveloped parcel north of Highway 50 between Folsom and El Dorado Hills, according to El Dorado Hills Deputy Fire Chief Jim O’Camb, the incident commander, who later described the sequence of events to Village Life.
Expecting a smoldering brush pile or, at worst, a grass fire, firefighters arrived to find the home’s attic fully engaged and flames leaping from the roof.
The unintentional misdirection began when the family’s daughter noticed smoke in the side yard, precipitating a 911 call, according to O’Camb, who said he quickly dispatched two crews equipped to fight a wildland fire.
Prior to their arrival, the family patriarch went out with a fire extinguisher and found a wood fence burning and flames on the roof, O’Camb explained. The dispatch operator, still on the line, encouraged the family to evacuate immediately, then updated O’Camb, who dispatched additional crews and high-tailed it up Wilson Drive himself.
Volunteers and supporting units from Latrobe, Folsom, Cameron Park and Cal Fire soon converged in the tiny Santa Cruz Court, near the western terminus of Wilson Boulevard.
The fire occurred just 17 days after a Planetta Drive home in the Lake Hills neighborhood apparently fell prey to oily rags left in the sun.
This time the suspected instigator is either low voltage landscape lighting or, more likely, decomposing bark that self-immolated in the 99-degree temperature and low humidity, according to O’Camb, who described how the groundcover can become a fire source on hot, dry days with a little breeze and counter-intuitively, a little moisture.
“When the sun hits it, it creates just the right chemical reaction,” said O’Camb. “We get about 20 calls like this every summer.”
The ember “skunks around” until it finds better fuel, often a fence post, he continued. “It will follow the fence; in this case the fence led right to the house.”
Above the fence was an eave. Flames from the burning fence likely jumped into the attic vent or simply burned though the eave, he conjectured. Residents are typically unaware that an attic fire is burning until it’s firmly established, added O’Camb.
A gas meter adjacent to the fence could have added some drama to the afternoon pyrotechnics. Fortunately it was not compromised.
The initial two engine crews confirmed that the family was safe. One crew changed gear, donning structure fire equipment, including oxygen tanks, while the other began dousing the roof, which O’Camb estimated was already 20 percent engaged, a threat to toss hot embers onto the neighboring homes or wildland.
“Get a little water on an attic fire and the steam puts it out pretty quickly,” said O’Camb.
The trick is getting to the fire and putting water on it before the structure collapses.
As with most attic fires, the crews on Wednesday entered the burning building and “poked around,” in the ceiling, using experience and intuition to locate the “seat” of the fire, then cut through the ceiling a safe distance away and worked a hose nozzle into the attic.
The Crestline neighborhood was one of the last in El Dorado Hills to be built with shake shingles, according to O’Camb. One of the advantages of shake is its light weight, which makes a roof collapse much less likely and fighting an attic fire less risky.
On the downside, the shakes become quite flammable once they get a certain age, and fire tends to “skunk around” in the tar paper that lies beneath them.
Once the attic was under control crews attacked the roof, eventually removing most of the shingles in pursuit of skunky embers.
Division Chief Brad Ballenger took a couple of hand crews into the adjoining wildland to ensure that the fire didn’t spread west.
The fire suppression effort destroyed the kitchen and living room, but left the bedrooms largely intact, said O’Camb. The thick smoke in the house would likely make any portion that wasn’t physically damaged uninhabitable, he added, predicting that the insurance investigators would declare the home fully destroyed.
Firefighters were able to save much of the furniture. Given the time and manpower, fire crews routinely protect the possessions in burning houses, either dragging them outside or pushing the large pieces together, adding any visible valuables, then wrapping the bundle in a fire-proof tarp.
Sadly, firefighters were not able to save the family’s two small dogs, which apparently hid upstairs in the chaos of the evacuation and were overcome by smoke.
Firefighters used specialized animal resuscitation cones in an effort to jump start the dogs’ breathing, to no avail.
Crews monitored the scene for the next five hours and with the family’s grateful approval, buried the dogs in the backyard later that evening.