FAIRFIELD — Minutes. That was as long as it took for the lives of five families to be forever changed and the lives of several of their neighbors to be grateful that, while hurt, they were saved from disaster.
The first calls to 911 started at 3:49 p.m. A grass fire alongside Interstate 80, with lots of smoke. Fast-moving in the dead brush and eucalyptus trees.
Firefighters arrived quickly, as the fire station on North Texas Street is only a few hundred yards from the fire. The first firefighters arriving saw they were in trouble. Afternoon winds fanned the flames, carrying them quickly toward the fence lines of a row of houses along Marigold Drive.
Firefighters were immediately confronted with a terrible choice – attack the fire head-on or try to get out ahead of it and hope to knock the down hard enough and fast enough to keep it from quickly burning further out of control.
Within minutes, two homes on Marigold were burning. Police and firefighters made sure they had been evacuated. Fences and backyards of some nearby homes were igniting. Nearby, police and firefighters were racing door to door, getting people evacuated from the long row of a few dozen homes.
Firefighters set up a defense line ahead of the flames that were sweeping over a hill, creating a choking smoke that darkened the skies to the east.
“We lost two homes but we were able to save seven homes,” Battalion Chief Matt Luchenbach said. By the end of the long day, five homes were uninhabitable and 10 more were damaged.
As scores of residents from damaged and endangered homes and their neighbors gathered along the sidewalk on the south side of Marigold, additional firefighters and police arrived.
Residents at one home used shovels and dirt to slow the flames, while others used garden hoses to pour small streams of water at the spreading flames.
The threat from the fire grew in minutes. In less than 10 minutes, the response to the blaze grew to four alarms. At its peak the fire was seven alarms – the Macro Plastics fire two years ago was six alarms – with more than 200 firefighters battling the blaze.
As the fire spread to three more homes on Marigold Drive, police began evacuating residents at the Summit Apartments, a 180-unit complex off of North Texas Street that was in the path of fast-moving flames.
The blaze spread to an AT&T storage yard, destroying a truck and a trailer and damaging other vehicles. For a brief time there was concern the fire was about to spread to the nearby America’s Best Value Inn, the Texas Roadhouse and a Shell gas station. Those fears were never realized as firefighters from throughout Solano County and from three neighboring counties raced in to join the fight.
With thick, brown, choking smoke and the heat from the fire filling the air, many residents at the Summit Apartments abandoned all their belongings and opted to take their cars, the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry out of harm’s way. A row of cars filed onto North Texas Street, passing parked police cars and arriving firetrucks.
The fire was still growing and had been burning less than 20 minutes.
With nearby smoke detectors starting to shriek, police rushed door to door at the apartments, pounding on doors and in some cases kicking doors open to get residents to safety. At least one resident slept through the sirens and clamor and the pounding until he was awakened by a police officer at his bedside telling him to get out. Other officers helped parents quickly load their young children and pets into cars.
Detective Adam Ponce carried a wide-eyed child to the parking lot. Officer Tom Shackford carried a lone puppy from another residence.
A fire crew from the Montezuma Fire Protection District arrived at the apartments as flames made it within a few feet of two buildings.
Another fire crew doused the flames alongside the freeway, creating a spectacle that snarled the afternoon commute traffic.
In less than an hour, 40 acres of brush and trees were burned and several homes along Marigold Drive were still being threatened by the flames.
An evacuation center was set up at nearby Fairfield High School, but most residents chose to watch firefighters try to protect their homes. The evacuation center was closed down at 10 p.m.
By 5:30 p.m., two Marigold Drive homes were gutted and their walls and roofs collapsed as firefighters continued pouring thousands of gallons of water onto the persistent flames. Three other nearby homes suffered heavy fire damage. Several other homes had minor fire damage and damage from ember-fueled spot fires in backyards. Many other homes and apartments suffered smoke damage. At the end of the night, the five homes were uninhabitable and 10 more were damaged.
While the threat from the fire lasted into the night, firefighters had the upper hand before 6 p.m. Summit residents were allowed to return to their apartments and fire crews turned their attention to monitoring hot spots and watching to ensure no flare-ups occurred at damaged homes or in nearby trees and brush.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. restored power to many of the Marigold Drive homes that had been turned off earlier as a safety precaution and several residents were able to start returning to their homes around 9 p.m.
Five families had no homes to return to.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.