Resident Tom Lucero said he was taking a nap after doing some gardening last Sunday when he awoke to a room filling with smoke and fire. Unable to use a front door blocked by flames, Lucero was forced to sprint through a wall of flames to escape through his kitchen with only the clothes on his back. In minutes, the entire house was ablaze.
“We opened our door to an inferno,” said neighbor Joni Fraga-Pratt, adding that spotty cell phone service on the island made calling for help difficult. “I called 911 six times and got through on the sixth call.”
East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Chief Hugh Henderson said the call came in from Taylor Place at 12:29 p.m. The first engine arrived seven minutes and 24 seconds later, just in time to save David Viramontez’s house next door.
“My house was smoking,” Viramontez said. Windows shattered, paint blistered and siding buckled on the building, and a plastic skylight on the roof melted.
Henderson said the Viramontez house and a motor home next door that was also damaged would probably have been lost had the response taken any longer.
The island’s Station 95 is expected to be closed in July unless voters pass Measure S, a $197 parcel tax on the June ballot. The second-arriving crew, Engine 93 from Oakley, arrived 13 minutes after the first alarm.
“That was almost 2008 all over again,” said Henderson, referring to a conflagration that destroyed two houses and damaged a third just down the street four years ago. “This was a good save. I’m really proud of our firefighters and the agencies that helped us.” According to Henderson, the cause of Sunday’s fire was undetermined.
Wind-driven flames ignited a row of 40-foot cypress trees, which filled the air with flaming debris that began falling on houses downwind.
“It was raining fire,” said Jeremy Copple, an ECCFPD fire captain who lives across the street and was at home with his wife and 2-week-old daughter when the fire broke out. Copple suffered burns to his wrist and ankle as he worked to put out numerous small fires that broke out on his deck, gangway and neighbors’ docks, at times using a bucket to carry water. The absence of fire hydrants on the island forced firefighters to rely on water tenders until the arrival, 20 minutes after the fire began, of the district fire boat piloted by Henderson. The boat helped protect exposures and pumped water to the engines working the blaze.
The fire required the use of all six of the district’s engines and several water tenders. ConFire and CAL FIRE moved up from Clayton and Antioch to cover empty ECCFPD stations. A total of nine medical calls came in to the district during the fight on Bethel Island, Henderson said.
The house, which Lucero was renting from family members, was not insured. Islanders are hosting a fundraiser this Sunday, May 20 at Fraga-Pratt’s restaurant Tug’s, 6201 Bethel Island Road. The $10 admission pays for a beef dinner with beans, plus a green, potato or macaroni salad. The event features raffles, live music and an opportunity to make a donation. For more information, call Tug’s at 925-684-9800.
“People keep saying I’m alive, and I guess that’s a good thing,” Lucero said Monday, choking back tears. “I just wish it had stopped with me. This is going to affect my aunt and uncle, too. They lost their whole house.”