Firefighters check other apartments after smoke was seen coming from a roof vent of a fourplex on North 8th Street.

Structure Fire threatens Apartment complex

September 09, 2011
Fire detected as SPFD leaving the scene of stovetop blaze
Santa Paula News

An unusual incident Monday caused Santa Paula Firefighters to miss being in the Labor Day Parade, when while leaving the scene of a stovetop grease blaze they noticed smoke was coming from a roof vent of a fourplex on North 8th Street. According to Captain Jerry Byrum, the incident occurred just at about 9:30 a.m. on Monday, September 5 when firefighters responded to the report of a fire at the apartment complex located at 218 N. 8th Street. 

“We were getting ready to line up for the Labor Day Parade and we got the call for a stove fire” that firefighters found resulted from “someone heating cooking oil on the stove.... They walked away, abandoned it actually,” and the oil reached the ignition temperature and caught fire.

Byrum said, “We basically cleared that call” in a matter of about 15 minutes, but as firefighters were leaving, “We notice there was smoke still coming from the roof vent.... So that caused us to go back in and start looking at things.”

What firefighters found after they investigated and used thermal cameras was a fire in the attic not caused by the stove fire, but rather by a process called pyrolysis. “It’s a thermochemical decomposition” of organic material starved for oxygen, a situation not often seen but highly dangerous.

Firefighters found wood joists and other beams charred like charcoal from probably years of contact with exposed electrical wiring. “Based on the investigation we determined that someone nailed through electrical wiring... as a result of that some phone cabling underneath” had become energized.

“Everywhere the phone cable was laying on the 2 by 4 was charring - and also spreading to the ceiling joist. The electricity had energized the phone cabling, melted the wires carrying the electrical heat... there’s no real air up there” and, Byrum said, “as a result of us coming in to blow the smoke out from the grease fire, caused the wood to reach its ignition temperature.”

The ignition was inevitable and just a matter of time: “It could have presented itself at any time, it could have been in their sleep,” and the fire probably would have ignited in a big way.

Byrum noted a packing house fire on Peck Road that occurred about 25 years ago: “A steam pipe went through sections of wood in the ceiling and over time it turns into charcoal, chars and continues to char.... Eventually what happens is” an ignition factor is introduced, and “like a barbecue briquette - it burns.” Overall, Byrum said such fires are “not something commonly seen, are very, very rare.”

Damage from the fire - the main event caused by the pyrolysis - is estimated “upwards of about $30,000 for the contents and the structure... only the one unit was damaged,” where the initial call had come from. The damage resulted from the firefight - pulling drywall and ceiling - for the second blaze. 

The residents of the unit were displaced, but the others were allowed back into their apartments. Byrum said the residents said they had noticed having phone problems, such as static on the line, “evidence to us they’d had a problem there” resulting from the charring of lines above the fourplex.

Firefighters finally left the scene - again - at about 1 p.m. Byrum said SPFD Engines 81 and 82 responded, as did two engines and a battalion chief from Ventura County Fire Department and an engine from Fillmore City.

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