Almanac

News - July 30, 2014

Power loss, traffic jam tied to grass fire near I-280

by Dave Boyce

A grass fire along Interstate 280 in Woodside occupied firefighters for more than seven hours on July 24. At about 3:30 p.m., a eucalyptus tree fell across Canada Road near Godetia Drive and took with it a 60,000-volt electrical power line.

Because the power line happened to cross from one side of Canada Road to the other at that location, its sparks ignited weeds and brush on both sides of the road, including thick vegetation in the open space alongside the freeway, said Battalion Chief Rob Lindner of the Woodside Fire Protection District.

There were no reported injuries and the one-alarm fire was contained within an hour and under control by about 8 p.m., Mr. Lindner said.

Participating were firefighters from the Woodside district, the Redwood City Fire Department and the San Mateo County Fire Department, as well as a wildland-response team from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Cal Fire group included five engine companies, two airplanes and a helicopter, with the helicopter doing most of the airborne firefighting, Mr. Lindner said. The helicopter dropped three or four loads of water, he said.

Traffic was snarled on northbound I-280 as the two lanes nearest the fire were closed. Parts of Canada Road were closed for several hours.

One fire, two fires

Woodside residents Denise and Millo Fenzi happened to be behind the lead car in the incident, and Mr. Fenzi made the 911 call, Ms. Fenzi told the Almanac.

"It was really something to watch," she said. "I just looked up and the tree was coming over Canada Road."

The driver ahead of her stopped and four young women got out and walked back to the Fenzis' car, Ms. Fenzi said. They all heard a loud bang and the fires started, she said.

"As we talked to the dispatcher, we watched the fires (start): one fire, two fires, three fires, four fires," she said.

Canada Road residents came out and fought the fire with hoses, she said.

Delayed response?

Ms. Fenzi said the firefighters took at least 10 minutes to arrive on the scene.

The tree blocked her passage home, so she turned around and got to I-280 north via the college campus, then to Edgewood Road and back down Canada to her home on the other side of the incident, where she loaded her three dogs into her vehicle. At that time, there was still no evidence of firefighters, she said.

"We live in a high fire danger area so how can it take 10 minutes," she asked. "I don't know what to expect, but I know that's not right."

Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso said his engine company was on the scene six minutes and 45 seconds after hearing from dispatchers, well within the response-time standards.

A confluence of events may have contributed to the delay.

Ms. Fenzi said that during the 911 call, her husband had to repeatedly tell the dispatcher that a car had not collided with a tree and that the incident had not happened on the freeway.

"They were determined to make it a car accident," she said.

And it had been a busy few minutes, for dispatchers and Woodside firefighters, Chief Ghiorso said. Within the two-minute window of the 911 call about the Godetia Drive fire, there had been four others for the Woodside district: two vehicle accidents and two medical calls. FireDispatch.com also shows a separate report of smoke on I-280 at Woodside Road.

The fire district is investigating and has asked for recordings of the 911 calls, Chief Ghiorso said.

Lucky escape

The incident may easily have resulted in serious injury and even death, firefighters said.

When the eucalyptus tree fell, it fell in front of northbound traffic on Canada Road. In the lead car, the driver managed to stop and prevent serious damage, but the downed wires came to rest on the car — and the driver and passengers decided to get out.

The body of the car could have been electrified. Had a passenger stepped to the road while touching any part of the car's electrified body — or been separated from the car by a few inches of air space — the passenger could have completed an electrical circuit from the wire to the ground and suffered a severe and perhaps fatal shock.

"We would not have approached the car," Chief Ghiorso said. "We would have told them to stay in the car until we got the wires secured."

Crews from Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. arrived quickly, but complications with grounding the wires delayed the shutdown of the electricity, Mr. Lindner said.

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