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Devastating Destruction in Downtown Boonville

I can still feel the smoke in my nose and lungs this morning as I write this sad story.

A devastating fire destroyed several old buildings in downtown Boonville on Thursday, December 5, 2019. The fire appears to have started in one of the residences located next door to the Lizzby's restaurant. Unfortunately, these residential units were also attached or very close to the historical, old, brick building where four businesses were quickly engulfed in flames and black, choking smoke. Bystanders were asked to keep their distance and protect themselves from breathing in the toxic odors.

The fire must have started just before 12:30pm. Witnesses said they saw the duplex roof in flames between the restaurant and the AV Market next door around 12:30pm. Other witnesses said they didn't notice the fire until around 12:40pm. This was around the time the fire department (just a few doors down from the site) got the official notification (thru 911).

People! If you see an incident, please don't assume someone else is going to call it in - DO IT yourself! It could mean life or death. Better they get too many call-ins than none at all. Another witness said someone called the fire station's direct local number sometime around 12:30-12:45pm. So our volunteer fire department kicked into high gear and started setting up a defensive system to contain the fire the minute they knew.

Our local volunteers were not going to be able to deal with this multi-structural burn by themselves. It was awesome to see the immediate response from so many other fire departments in the County.

HUGE THANKS AND APPRECIATION to these fire departments: Elk, Comptche, Redwood Coast, South Coast, Ukiah, Hopland and CalFire. I guesstimate at least 20 fire apparatus (i.e., fire engines, fire trucks, tankers, etc) were parked in the middle of town. I saw at least two shifts of firefighter crews come in, so there were more than 50 of them off and on during the incident.

We also had a huge response from other support teams: CalTrans, CHP, County Sheriff, PG&E, Parks & Recreation Law Enforcement, and Red Cross arrived to assist the victims who lost everything.

Hwy 128 was closed for several hours due to a lack of detour routes around Boonville, so anyone traveling through town got stuck. It seemed strange to walk down the street and see cars just "parked" in the street without a driver because they were hanging out at the Redwood Drive-In or walking closer to the fire scene. The Drive-In also offered free food and drinks to the first responders.

Other local businesses jumped in to support the displaced residents and provide relief for the first responders. The AV Market set up a station with sandwiches, coffee, ice and water despite their power being turned off because they were next door to the fire and PG&E said it was safer for them to do so. Lauren's restaurant provided dinner for the displaced residents and invited firefighters as well. The Boonville Hotel already had a special event planned that night (lighting their holiday tree), but turned it into a "fundraiser" to help raise money for the victims of this tragedy. They had hot soup and drinks for everyone.

Some locals gave the victims blankets, clothes or cash, as they stood watching their world disappear. I wanted to ask them what happened, but it just wasn't appropriate at that moment, so this reporter just held their hands and hugged them. Emotions were running hot through the crowd of shocked people watching.

Compassion, patience, forgiveness and most of all endurance are the key words that run through my mind and heart today as I think about this little community I live in and how personal something like this can be for ALL of us. Everyone is affected. Boonville is a mellow little town, so situations like this do not happen often, thankfully. When we have compassion and share our hospitality and kindness with others, we will find the strength to rally together and endure the challenges that may occur. But we must always be prepared for loss and how we will deal with it.

What was lost?

The Businesses this community counts on:

The little corner store, Pic-n-Pay, that stays open at all hours of the day, almost every day of a year, provides one of the few ATM's and merchandise everyone uses - GONE. The Laundromat - providing a much needed service for so many people in the valley - GONE. (Only one other laundromat in the valley - located in Philo behind Jack's Valley Store and much smaller. Will friends and family help each other out now?) Lizbby's restaurant - the popular Mexican restaurant and local hang out for many, which was starting to make a success of it - GONE. La Cantina - the newest business in the building and very popular on weekends since it was the only bar in the valley - GONE.

Employment - those working at these businesses are suddenly without income and it's the most expensive time of year with all the holiday activities and winter weather. What are they going to do now? How long will all the bureaucratic paperwork take to process? Who will step up and help those in need with whatever it takes to help them get on the road to recovery? Who will step up and provide food, water and shelter to these individuals? It's a struggle living in this very rural valley as it is, so a loss like this can be devastating. But this is a sturdy community and it will survive! It takes communication and compassion to come up with the ideas. Then it takes action and commitment to follow through and DO SOMETHING about it.

So what happened? Why did it take so long to put this fire out? And what was going on with the water situation? This is a prime example of what happens when there is only one fire hydrant in town and a limited water supply. A water tender truck (the tankers) only holds enough water to last a few minutes, so they had to keep leaving to get refilled over at the fairgrounds where the right-sized faucets/hydrants were available to fit their hoses. The other fire engines were literally linked together with hoses from the hydrant at the fairgrounds, down the street, one engine after another, until they reached the fire. It was quite impressive to watch the team work together as they dealt with this tricky process and equipment.

How the fire started is still under investigation and I was told by AVFD Chief Avila that the final report may be a few days to months, depending on what they find. Speculation and gossip are NOT recommended in this small community. Unless you hear the data from a reliable source, please refrain from storytelling until the pros tell us. It only hurts those who are already hurting from this tragedy.

From the color of the smoke (mostly billowing black) was an indicator that chemicals and highly flammable caustic material was burning. Not a good sign, but whenever the smoke turned white, it was a sure thing the fire was getting watered and steam was rising in response. Sometimes water doesn't help in a chemical fire, so other methods have to be used. Sometimes, it's just best to let the fire burn itself out. Sometimes, it's more dangerous for surrounding areas and people if the burning structure is ripped open (opening the roof, doors and windows). That can actually add fuel (oxygen) to the fire. So we must trust the firefighters and let them do their job. Sometimes it appears they are moving slow, especially for those watching their possessions going up in flames, but it's the safest process. Patience is the key.

This whole situation could have been much worse and destroyed the whole town if it happened a few weeks ago before the rain and cold weather arrived. It was a bit windy when the fire started, which caused it to blow quickly from the residential units to the main building and away from the AV Market. Just on the other side of the building is a tall cluster of eucalyptus trees that burn like matchsticks, so it was prudent of the firefighters to spray down the trees as the fire grew higher and continued to re-ignite inside the building. If the roof collapsed (which it came close to doing), it could cause a sudden burst of flames from the rapid exposure of air. If those trees caught fire and the wind was still blowing, the rest of the town could have gone up in smoke very quickly. But the wind died down right away, it started sprinkling, and they had the building surrounded (there were more buildings behind this building so they had more fire apparatus' protecting the backside as well). All that kitchen grease, oils, gas stoves/heaters, alcohol, laundry chemicals, plastics, refrigeration chemicals (from all those frozen/cold food cabinets) and old electrical and propane systems (the building dates back pre-WWII) - just waiting to burn hot or explode. Thank goodness nothing exploded!

I heard some bystanders questioning why, upon arrival, the firefighters didn't immediately start using their hoses to put the fire out? What they didn't know is there are safety protocols that are used by firefighters. When they arrive, they have to access the situation and fire's movement, rescue any victims, and set up the support and command systems so when everyone arrives, they know who to get orders from and what they're supposed to do and then fight the fire. This keeps everyone safe and the process efficient. Time seems to stop when fires are raging, but in reality, it's only a few minutes upon arrival when the action starts to happen.

As the fire continued to burn into the evening, the old tin roof began to sag and creak and it was inevitable it would collapse. Unfortunately, this meant the firefighters could not go into the building at that point, so eventually, the heavy equipment was called in from CalFire. It was like watching a giant dinosaur gobble up the fire and debris and crush it into a pile of rubble. As the pile grew, some of it re-ignited, so a firefighter stood by to keep dousing the growing, hot debris. All I could think about was how would the victims be able to find anything in the rubble now that it's all piled up in a big mess? Also, by de-constructing the "scene", how would investigators be able to determine the cause of the fire, unless someone actually knew how it started and reported it? Some bystanders considered this to be total destruction, but oddly enough, some things like maybe a piece of jewelry or some miraculous other discovery, sometimes survive these kinds of tragedies! Take for instance, the basketball hoop still standing. Or the basketball, that was still laying nearby, fully intact and inflated! Just memories now.

And the history of this building – wow. I had to look that up to refresh my memory in our wonderful local book, "Then and Now, An Anderson Valley Journey," by Wes Smoot and Stephen Sparks. What a history! This location started out back in 1933 when the first building was a bar, whose nickname became "The Bucket of Blood" because of the folklore that many men spilled their blood fighting their way out of the bar. Today, I'd call it "The Bucket of Bricks" because that just about all that's left of the poor place. Well, the first building was torn down and a new one built in it's place back in the 60's. That building was remodeled several times, hence the brick facade and most recently, the newest owners put up an awning that, unfortunately, crashed to the ground yesterday in a roar of flames and black smoke. Several firefighters barely got out of the way as they hosed down the flaming debris.

Thankfully, there were no injuries reported. Firefighters must wear special equipment when exposed to chemical fires, but they are still required to get checked out periodically during the incident to ensure they are getting enough oxygen from their tanks and not inhale too much toxic smoke. It was good there were so many crews members out there helping to switch out the oxygen tanks, so the fighters could quickly get back to their tasks.

It was tragic and stressful to watch the destruction, but it was also very exciting to watch the firefighters diligently working to contain the flames. Despite coming from several different battalions, this "army" of firefighters (mostly volunteer fighters from other small communities) put their protocols and training in action to swiftly contain this dangerous fire. Personally, it gives me comfort to know they are out there. A BIG THANKS to those First Responders and Volunteers!

Will someone build again in this prime location? At this point, only time can tell. Time will heal the wounds. Time will sort out the mess of legal and insurance bureaucracy. It's time folks - Time to help our community. When we give to another, someone will give back to us. Besides, giving to others, especially in their time of need, feels good and promotes positive energy.

Out of this rubble, we will rise again!

One Comment

  1. Pat Kittle December 11, 2019

    Fire has taken its toll of several old timey buildings here in Santa Cruz County as well.

    Much more than just buildings are lost.

    Within such places we feel the presence of the primeval redwoods that were sacrificed to build them.

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