Hillside fires can hide unforeseen hazards 

The death of two Engine Company 26 firefighters following a Thursday morning fire is a nightmarish case of déjà vu for the Fire Department.

San Francisco mourned the death of another lieutenant from the same station in 1995 after a fire consumed a hillside home only a half-mile away from the house where this most recent blaze claimed two firefighters’ lives.

In the earlier blaze — the last time before Thursday’s tragedy that a San Francisco firefighter was killed while battling an inferno — three firefighters were trapped in a smoky garage when the door unexpectedly closed. Lt. Louis Mambretti didn’t make it out alive.

Click on the photo to the right to see a map of the two fires.

Conditions of the fire Thursday that killed Lt. Vince Perez and paramedic-firefighter Anthony Valerio were different than the 1995 blaze, but the homes where the fires occurred were virtually identical.

A review of that fire by the U.S. Fire Administration found that the closing of the garage door and high winds were the major factors in the death, but it also pointed out the dangers of fighting hillside fires, such as the inability to assess the blaze from street level.

The size of the 1995 fire was not apparent from the front of the building because only the top stories were visible from the street, according to the report. The design of that house was common for many homes on hillsides in Diamond Heights, Twin Peaks and other areas near Fire Station 26. The report suggested that firefighters should strive to take a "360-degree size-up" of those situations.

The blaze on Thursday apparently started on the ground floor of a four-story home on a steep hill and spread to the second and third stories. But from the home’s front, firefighters could only see the third and fourth stories, which forced them to enter above the flames.

Fighting a fire from the top down is always dangerous, fire union President Tom O’Connor said.

"The biggest difference between the 1995 fire and this one was that we had gale-force winds that day," deputy fire Chief Pat Gardner said. "For this fire, we had minimal breeze."

Inside the 133 Berkeley Way home on Thursday, the fire was between 300 to 400 degrees while the blaze in a hallway where the two fallen firefighters are believed to have been found reached 500 to 700 degrees, according to Gardner.

At that temperature, any water that douses a firefighter’s protective clothing immediately turns to steam, Gardner said.

The Fire Department has not released much more information on the Thursday fire. A joint investigation is being conducted by local police homicide inspectors, the Fire Department and the District Attorney’s Office, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A separate investigation is being conducted by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.



Examiner Staff Writer Dan Schreiber contributed to this report.

This story was corrected Monday, June 13, 2011. The story originally attributed a quote to deputy fire Chief  Dan Gardner. The deputy fire chief's name is actually Pat Gardner.

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