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.