The Carmel Pine Cone
September 7-13, 2007
House Seriously Damaged in Overnight Blaze
Firefighters Prevent Spread of 40-Foot Flames to Neighboring Homes
By Mary Brownfield
In the largest fire to hit Carmel since a fatal incident in 2002, flames caused major damage to a Santa Lucia home just after midnight Monday. Louise Frost was home alone with her two dogs and sound asleep when snapping sounds coming from the garage awakened her. Thinking rodents had triggered traps or, worse still, an intruder was inside, she banged on the adjacent bedroom wall.
Then she smelled smoke and, rather than opening the door to the garage next to her bedroom – which could have been a fatal mistake – she went down the hall and opened the kitchen door to look back toward the garage. It was on fire.
As she dialed 911, police arrived, having already been alerted by neighbors. They told her to get out of the house, and she took her dogs with her. “We got out just in time,” said Frost, who had just returned from a vacation in the Sierra Nevada, while her husband, deputy district attorney David Frost, stayed on a bit longer.
Police evacuated adjacent homes and told arriving firefighters no one was inside the burning building.
“At that time of night, if there’s a fire, we’re just going to assume people are in the house,” Carmel Fire Capt. Ian Watts said. But after hearing no rescue was necessary, the crews on the first engine and ambulance arrived with fire suppression in mind. They connected a hose to a hydrant more than a block away and began attacking the fire from the outside but had to wait for more firefighters to arrive before going inside, since safety laws require at least two emergency personnel to remain outside a burning structure while others enter it.
Several moments later, a second ambulance arrived from Carmel Valley, providing the necessary bodies. But by then, “the fire had extended into the attic, and that led to damage in the rest of the house,” Watts said. “Once in the attic, it was really difficult to control.” Complicating efforts were the tight spaces alongside the home, which sits on a characteristically narrow Carmel lot. Crews had to cut through the neighbor’s fence on the west side and use the property on the east side for access, according to Watts.
When the 20-to-40-foot-high flames burned through the top of the garage, “the fire got into the trees and could have very easily gotten into the neighbors’ houses,” he said. With recent dry weather creating highly flammable conditions, “the neighbors must have been afraid to have a fire that close. And it was not small,” Watts added.
Two dozen firefighters and three supervisors on seven engines and two ambulances contributed to the effort according to Watts, with Monterey Fire Division Chief Dave Potter (not the county supervisor) in charge of the incident.
A Cypress Fire crew received orders to chop holes in the roof, while firefighters from Carmel Valley, Monterey and Pacific Grove were assigned to other parts of the blaze. Working together from all directions, they closed in on it. “We just slowly took control of the fire, extinguished it and overhauled it,” Watts said. “It took about five-and-a-half hours.” An Eight Pacific Grove Fire volunteers arrived at an opportune moment.
“Once everything slows down, and you’re wet and soaking and cold, these guys show up, warm and dry,” and ready to work, Watts said. “They helped us move the hose and did all the dirty work. You can see how many people it takes, and that was just for one house.”
“The fire department was phenomenal,” said Frost. “They saved the neighborhood.”
The Carmel chapter of the American Red Cross also mobilized its emergency response vehicle to provide hot drinks and food for the fire crews. No cause determined.
Investigation of the fire had to wait for the debris to cool, because the Frosts had hunting ammunition stored in the garage, according to Watts. The garage also contained wooden hunting decoys, and some cans of paint and varnish used for restoring the decoys, but David Reade, the Monterey Fire marshal in charge of the investigation, said the residents denied having any piles of used rags that might have spontaneously combusted. Frost reported she had spent the day doing laundry in the garage, but Reade could not say whether the washer or dryer was to blame. “A lot of the time, the evidence is consumed in the fire,” he said, though burn patterns indicated the fire originated in the garage.
While an insurance adjuster will ultimately assess the damage, Reade said the cost would likely exceed $200,000, depending on how much of the original structure can be saved. “We’re assuming we’ll be out for quite a while,” said Frost, who went to stay with her sister in Carmel Valley. Her husband also immediately left the Sierra after receiving Frost’s call about the fire and returned to the Peninsula Monday. “The living room wasn’t touched – there’s just smoke and water damage – and kitchen is OK. But from the pantry back, there’s no roof.”
Frost has spent the days following the fire surveying the damage and said she was impressed with the Disaster Kleenup Specialists crew that came in, cleaned out the debris, stored the salvageable furniture and boarded up the house. Another Carmel couple has loaned their house to the Frosts and their two dogs for several weeks while they search for a rental.
“I’m astounded at how kind everyone has been,” Frost said.