Update: Portola Valley house fire likely caused by spontaneous combustion

House was under construction is now uninhabitable, firefighters said

This is an expanded version of a previously posted story.

By Dave Boyce Almanac Staff Writer

An April 27 fire that significantly damaged a two-story house under construction in Portola Valley's Westridge neighborhood was likely caused by spontaneous combustion associated with materials used to stain exterior cedar siding, firefighters said.

The house at 10 La Sandra Way, now uninhabitable, was about a month away from being ready for occupancy, Battalion Chief Rob Lindner of the Woodside Fire Protection District said. The house was unoccupied at the time of the fire and there were no injuries, he said.

When firefighters arrived, about seven minutes after the 5:15 a.m. 911 call from a neighbor, they found one side of the house burning, Mr. Lindner said. The flames damaged about a third of the house, but there is smoke damage throughout, he said.

The fire started on the outside, climbed up the cedar siding from the bottom of the house and eventually made its way inside, Fire Marshal Denise Enea said.

The fire had been burning for at least two hours before firefighters got there, she said. It burned through 12-inch-thick timbers as well as a wall and a floor, both designed to resist fire for an hour referred to as "one-hour" walls and floors.

"That's kind of common when a fire gets going in the morning when no one is up and about," Ms. Enea said. "The saving grace was that the sprinklers were working."

Cedar siding on a house should not begin at the bottom of an exterior wall but three or four feet up, where it's much safer in terms of being ignited from the ground, Ms. Enea said.

"The fire did a lot of damage because it climbed up the side of the house," she said. "I tell homeowners, architects and contractors all the time that any kind of cedar siding, especially with the staining, is very combustible material."

The house's stucco siding was undamaged, she added.

"People don't think a fire is ever going to happen to them," Ms. Enea said. They take precautions against flu and traffic accidents and flat tires, but "when it comes to fire, because people don't see it so often, it's not something intimate," she said. "They never have to deal with it, so they don't think it's going to happen."

Using cedar siding "constitutes nailing kindling to your house," she said.

Fighting the fire

The house's first floor sits atop an above-ground garage. The fire burned through the first floor in places such that the underside of the second floor was visible from inside the garage, Mr. Lindner said. The second floor was not damaged, he said.

Crews from the Woodside and Menlo Park fire protection districts, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were on the scene. The one-alarm fire brought to the fire a total of five fire engines, one ladder truck, two battalion chiefs (to manage the operation) and an ambulance, Mr. Lindner said.

"The crews did a good job," he said. "(They) were aggressive to get it knocked down quickly keep it as that first alarm (level)."

Firefighters fought the fire from inside and out, and employed fans on a ladder truck to clear the scene of smoke, he said. They had it knocked down in about 30 minutes and extinguished about 15 minutes after that, he said.

The fire never threatened to ignite vegetation, but had there been wind, as was the case a couple of days earlier, "it would have been a whole different scene," Mr. Lindner said.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Cause of Combustion?
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on May 3, 2016 at 7:48 pm

What, exactly, spontaneously combusted? Rags soaked with stain? I don't quite get the cause here. I know that enclosed, fresh grass clippings can spontaneously combust, especially on a hot day and in a garage. Since the FD says the fire started on the OUTSIDE of the house, it would really be helpful to know what combusted. Thanks!

Editor's note: An April 27 fire that significantly damaged a two-story house under construction in Portola Valley's Westridge neighborhood was likely caused by spontaneous combustion associated with materials used to stain exterior cedar siding, firefighters said.

2 people like this
Posted by RM
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 5, 2016 at 10:12 pm

Linseed oil is a common component of stains and varnishes. Put some rags soaked with this in a container exposed to air and moisture and the oil will oxidize. If the heat is trapped the oxidation will raise the temperature of the rags to the point of combustion. So...if the container is next to the get the result here. One can only hope the painter has a really good liability insurance policy

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

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 5,702 views

Summer Cooking Classes - Free!
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,592 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 1,264 views

More Bad News: Downtown Parking Will Get Much Worse
By Dana Hendrickson | 11 comments | 1,126 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 993 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More