Bathroom remodeling starts house fire


Firefighters believe that hot solder ignited the paper backing of wall insulation in a one-alarm fire that partially destroyed a one-story, three-bedroom home being remodeled at 1131 Menlo Oaks Drive in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood on Friday, May 7.

One of two contractors working in the house at the time suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries and a scratch from one of three cats he had gone back in to rescue, said Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

"That's admirable, but it almost cost him," Chief Schapelhouman said of the contractor's rescue effort. "Those contractors got out in the nick of time. ... The fire just got big very fast because of the spread in the attic."

The couple who bought the home two months ago were away. The fire caused about $150,000 in damage to the structure, most of it to the attic, and $10,000 to $15,000 to the contents, the chief said. Water has probably warped a new hardwood floor, he said.

The contractors had been sweating solder onto a pipe in a bathroom and some apparently dripped through a hole where the pipe came through the wall, the chief said. When the insulation caught fire, the wall acted like a chimney and quickly lit the entire attic, he said.

Firefighters got the call at 3:56 p.m., arrived on the scene three minutes later and had it under control by 4:15, Chief Schapelhouman said. In all, about 15 firefighters were involved in four engine companies.

"This one was what I call a bread-and-butter fire," Chief Schapelhouman said, referring to the routine way of fighting it. Firefighters from the truck crew got on the roof and cut out a big hole to allow hot gases and smoke to escape and improve the visibility inside, where firefighters could then pull the ceiling down and get at the flames in the attic, the chief said.

The contractors initially tried to fight the fire with a 5-gallon bucket and water, but gave up and "bailed out of the front door," Chief Schapelhouman said he was told by neighbors who were watching.

The contractors called 911 and one of them went back in for the cats. He rescued one that was hiding, the other got out on its own and while the fate of the third cat is not known, it is believed to have escaped, the chief said.

The home will be unlivable for a number of months, the chief said. It's the third structure fire in the district in two weeks: one on Berkeley Avenue in Menlo Park that took the occupant's life, and one in East Palo Alto that came close to being life-threatening, the chief said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 10, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Had this residence had a residential sprinkler system the damage would have been lees than $20k and the home would have been immediately available to live in.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast Pete
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 10, 2010 at 12:39 pm

For this fire, the sprinklers would have had to be in the attic and ceiling to be effective. The water damage from sprinklers do not leave a home immediately available to live in. Wet insulation causes ceilings to collaspe. Then, restoration companies have to take out soaked carpet and pad, wet insulation, dehumidify the remaining wet sheetrock, etc. The soot from the caustic smoke requires interior repainting unless it is desired that occupants reside in a contaminated area. Then coordination is needed to replace all the damage. Also, unless the sprinkler system is flushed regularly, the water becomes stagnant and even more of a hazard.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm

In a legal residential sprinkler sysytem the attic and ceiling are included.
With a 4 minute Fire District response time there would have been very little water damage.
The sprinkler would have activated ONLY in the room/area where there was a fire - the bathroom which is, by designed, optimized for water damage.
There would have been virtually no soot since the fire would have been extinguished long before there was extensive smoke.

It is VERY important to know the facts before posting comments which require actual knowledge.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Yes, the facts are there were no sprinklers. Monday morning quarter backs are fun to watch, wishing they were in the game.

Like this comment
Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on May 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Fire sprinklers are not shut off on the immediate arrival of the FD, they need to check that the fire is out. Also, sprinklers do not cover insides of walls, as we saw when the store next to Pete's had a fire spread in its walls. I have seen the water damage in two different homes - it was not a mere clean up, one was a complete rebuild.

Sprinklers are appropriate for townhouses and condos where your neighbor is attached to you, and in row stores in wood construction. But there is no magic shield; there are better places to put your safety dollars than sprinklers in small, single family homes - that's why it should remain the homeowners choice, not yet another unfunded mandate by government.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Not so fast states:"Monday morning quarter backs are fun to watch, wishing they were in the game. "

No Monday morning quarterbacking here - I have been a strong, outspoken public advocate of residential fire sprinklers for years.

The average amount of water used to extinguish a fire with fore sprinklers is much less than 10% of the water required to put out the same fire with fire hoses.

Where residential fire sprinklers are not yet mandated by local laws they soon will be when the new National Fire Code goes into effect.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Ya we know Peter. You are a broken record and the subject. It IS exdpensive to retro fit houses. Nice try, you are Monday mornign 1/4 backing.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 10, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Steve states:"It IS exdpensive(sic) to retro fit houses" (

It is also very expensive to have an uncontrolled residential fire and we have had 3 in the last few months including one with a fatality - all of which would have been prevented by residential fire sprinklers. And residential fire sprinklers will soon be mandated by the new National Building Code.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 10, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I am a builder. Residential fire sprinklers are coming. The cost is typically $2.25/square foot. So for a 3000 sf house it will cost about $6,750. That is for new construction or in remodel where sheetrock is to be removed. Retrofitting sprinkler IS expensive due to the sheetrock removal and patching that is required, but how expensive depends on whether the house is one story or two.

Peter is right though, had this house had fire sprinler teh damage would have been much less severe. Even when you figure water damage costs. It takes a lot to do $150,000 damage with water that is not running very long. Once this fire broke into the attic it would have been extinguished instead of continuing to burn. Running a sprinkler head wide open for even 10 minutes would not do $150,000 damage.

I think it is fair to require retrofitting of sprinklers in major remodels and in new construction. As a total portion of the cost of construction it is not significant and they save lives.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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