Boonville firefighters were cursed in two languages Saturday afternoon, and that was before they showed up at Shorty Adams house in downtown Boonville to beat back a fierce outbuilding fire raging behind the popular school bus driver’s house.
As a column of black smoke spiraled perfectly into the still, summer-like sky, onlookers lining the west side of 128 gazed anxiously as flames billowed up over the untouched structures across the street and looked south, down the highway, wondering out loud in English and Spanish, “Where the hell is the fire department?”
Although the fire was reported shortly before 2pm, it wasn’t until 2:20 when the first Boonville fire truck appeared. The fire house is a quarter mile from the Adams property. It is not known why there was such a delay between the reporting of the fire and the arrival of the trucks. And it is still not clear why the first truck on scene was unable to pump water through its hoses. When that truck clumsily maneuvered into what became its final position, and firefighters rushed towards the inferno with its hoses, no water came out of them.
The crowd was disbelieving.
“These clowns are a fire department?” a Boonville man muttered.
If a determined handful of local men and women hadn’t grabbed garden hoses from wherever they could, and then hadn’t put whatever water they could where it wasn’t needed most, the Adams home and two neighboring houses would have been lost.
It was that close.
By the time the fire department did appear, the Adams house, and the houses on either side of it, were smoking and about to explode in flame. They would have burned if neighbors and passersby hadn’t kept the flames back with the little water they had available to them.
Jerry Kuny, at great risk to himself, soaked the roof of the Adams home with a garden hose as the flames grew larger, hotter and closer to him. But if he hadn’t clambered up on the house to lay down that thin stream of liquid retardant, the Adams house would have gone up along with the garage and work shops behind it.
Tony Pardini, beaten back by the flames the first time he tried, hosed himself down to protect himself from the heat long enough to rush into the fire itself and push Shorty Adams’ prized pick-up truck out of the flames. By the time Pardini had made his second dash into the inferno, the fire had melted the truck’s tail lights.
“I knew Shorty loved that truck,” Pardini said later. “And he loved the other three cars we couldn’t get to. But at least we saved his truck.”
Jed Adams, Shorty’s grandson, was all over the place helping out, as were numerous persons as yet unidentified who’d run to the scene to do what they could in lieu of the fire department’s unaccountable absence.
Next door, at the late Rich Day’s house, Dee Dee Gowan, like Pardini, was herself steaming from the fire’s ever more intense flames as she sprayed them and herself to keep the fire from engulfing both her and the Day property.
The resourceful Pardini, and the seemingly fearless Jed Adams, both of them wielding wrenches, had dived under the waterless fire truck when its operator was unable to get its pumps going; soon the long-delayed volume of water poured directly on the fire. When the pumps finally began pumping, it was literally in the nick of time. Another minute and it was quite likely the Adams house and both neighboring houses, would have ignited.
Pardini, aided by Paul Titus, a former Boonville volunteer who was driving by and saw the fire from the road and stopped to lend a hand, had already pushed Shorty’s pick-up truck to safety. Jed Adams led the next fire truck to arrive around to the rear of the inferno, where it at last poured water on the flames still spreading to the rear of three properties.
Some ten individuals, half of them still anonymous, saved the Adams home, the Vargas home next door and the Day place on the south side of the Adams property. Tony Pardini, Jed Adams, Dee Dee Gowan, and Jerry Kuny, by acting decisively and effectively, clearly averted a much larger disaster.
Why the local fire volunteers and their equipment failed is a matter likely to be debated for months to come.
The Adams family is picking up the pieces. There may have been three generations of Valley people at the fire Saturday that Shorty Adams has safely transported back and forth from local schools over the past forty-plus years. Shorty’s a central figure in the life of Anderson Valley. Nobody wanted to see his place go up in flames.
“Could have been a lot worse,” Shorty said Monday. “I lost three cars and the side of the pickup was burned and, of course, my shops and my garage are gone. But nobody got hurt, and we’re all thankful for that.
Tony Pardini came running in from the road just after we called 9-1-1. He said, ‘Don’t let that pickup burn.’ I said, Tony, don’t take a chance. Don’t worry about it. I’ve given up on it.’ It was so hot Tony didn’t make it the first pass, but they soaked it with a water hose and he went down and got it out. There were so many people helping out: Paul Titus and Steve Daniels, Tommy Lemons. Jerry Kuny. Jerry spotted the fire just starting next door at the Vargas place and he turned his hose on it. Jerry took care of that. He saved that house.
If it wasn’t for the locals, my house would have burned. The windows in the back of my house got so hot they broke. The paint chipped up on the back. You should see that mess down there now. I got up Sunday and thought I had a bad dream, but it was true.
I lost a ‘54 Mercury, bought new in December of 1953. And I lost the Cadillac my brother Earl gave us. He wanted my wife Betty to have it. We kept it wrapped up like a baby. We just took the car cover off because we were going to Ukiah in it. When I discovered the fire I was sitting in here watching the car races on the tv. We got ready to go to Ukiah, and when I went to get the car out that’s when I discovered the smoke in back. A water hose was already onto the faucet by the pump. I sprayed some water back there. Didn’t seem that bad. But the hose wasn’t long enough. I had another one attached to the faucet below the garage, and I walked over and turned it on. Before I could do anything much with that water, something blew up back there. Don’t know if it was a compressor motor or what, but I ran and turned the juice off. When I got down there it was more blaze so I decided to try to get the cars out. Went to the Caddy first. But the button I trigger the doors with, that fancy thing, it wouldn’t work. Couldn’t get the door open. Then I got another whiff of smoke, and I said, Nope. Not worth it. If it knocks me down in here I’ll burn up. So I left.
I lost a 24 x 24 garage, a 16 x 10 workshop and a 30-foot long by 16 foot wide workshop. The middle section was for Betty’s flowers. I’d moved the flowers out in the sunshine on Saturday, a beautiful day. I wouldn’t even have known it was on fire if I hadn’t gone to get the car out.
Before I did anything I told Betty, Call 911. And my neighbor, I said, Call 911. I know they got it before two o’clock. I don’t know this one Mexican boy’s name, I’ve hauled him around on the school bus. A big husky guy. He fought that fire like you wouldn’t believe! Went in with Jed and them guys and fought hard. The firefighters tried to tell him to go away.. I said, Wait a minute. I own this property. He can stay in the backyard if he wants to. He was doing good with the water hose, and the boy stayed. Another Mexican guy from across the street was a big help, too.
I went to work this morning anyway. I’m thankful we got our home. It was close. We almost got burnt out. It was so hot it burnt the back lawn off — a green lawn just burned off. I can’t say enough good about the local people. They did a great job. They’ve stood by me. People said, When you get ready to clean up, let us know. I felt bad about the fire department. It should not have been that way. I asked one of the guys, You guys ever check these things out on a regular basis? I was impressed by the Pitts girl, Colleen. She did an excellent job. And Roy Laird, used to have the saw shop in Navarro. He knew what to do. I don’t expect a big lot of money from the insurance, but anything will help. I’ve been paying them for years, and I don’t expect a battle with them. I expect to be treated fair.”
Anderson Valley Fire Chief Colin Wilson said Monday that he thought Shorty’s estimate that it took 15 or 20 minutes for the fire department to arrive was “a little off,” adding that he checked dispatch records and the time from dispatch to the engine getting to scene was five minutes — from 2pm to 2:05pm, Saturday afternoon. Wilson said that Shorty wasn’t sure when he first placed the call. “He didn’t personally place it,” said Wilson. “At one point Shorty said he called to his neighbor to make the call and that his wife also made a call.”
(Ed note. I left my home at 1:55pm. Dark smoke was already visible from here. I checked my watch at 1:15 at the scene of the fire. The first truck arrived soon after. Everyone present, and I’d say between 200 and 300 people were present either looking on or trying to help, was dismayed at the implausibly slow response by the department, and doubly dismayed when they saw that the driver of the first (and only) truck to arrive was unable to pump the necessary volume of water onto the flames. The second truck appeared minutes later, and its crew had to be showed the way to the rear of the property by Jed Adams.)
Wilson said that Jan Wasson-Smith was on scene, according to the times recorded by dispatch, five minutes from the report of the incident. When she got there Wasson-Smith could see flames elevated above the house, the garage was already that far involved and it would have been hard to save the garage no matter how fast the fire engine had arrived.
Wilson said that the problem was that “the Boonville structure engine,” the first truck at the scene, had lost a piece of linkage, apparently on the way down the street.
“They’d used the truck in training a couple weeks before and it had pumped just fine,” Wilson said. “It had not been out on the road since then.”
But when Wasson-Smith put the pump in gear it didn’t pump.
“A pin in the linkage that engages the pump had vibrated or fallen out,” Wilson explained. “That had to be the scenario. It appears at this point like it happened on the way to the fire. But we can’t confirm that other than the last time the truck was moved in training it pumped.”
It took the volunteers 10 or 15 minutes to locate the problem, get it corrected and get water going. “That definitely did not impact well on the second structure that was involved,” Wilson added.
(Ed note. In fact, Tony Pardini and Jed Adams corrected the pump problem, not the firefighters.)
There were also problems getting the engine into position to fight the fire behind Shorty’s house.
“Jan said when she got there the place was packed with interested bystanders who directed her in, not realizing that what they were trying to tell her to do wasn’t going to work.”
Wasson-Smith backed the truck into a corner of the yard’s fence, lurched forward, and finally parked at an oblique, partly in the driveway, partly on the highway. It wasn’t necessary to back into the driveway in the first place. The hoses were long enough to get water on the fire from the truck where it was on the street.
Wilson thinks that the fire was probably started by an overheated compressor in his garage.
“Shorty had a compressor in the garage building and had used it about an hour prior to going outside and seeing the garage on fire. From where Shorty first saw the flames, and from looking at the compressor it appeared that a bearing had probably failed which caused it to superheat.”
Shorty told Wilson that when he first saw the fire it was confined to the compressor area of the building. It was small enough that he thought he might be able to put it out himself.
“So,” Chief Wilson says, “he started trying to take care of it himself and he did not immediately make the 911 call. Judging by the height of the flames above the house from the street, the fire had some time to advance before the call was made. It wouldn’t have made that much progress in five minutes. There was probably more delay there than Shorty realized. Not a lot, but some more.”
Wilson said he talked to the engine company crew about when they last checked out the engine to make sure the pump was in operating condition.
“From what they said they were doing a reasonable job of checking that,” Wilson said. “The fact the engine lost that pin was not something they could have done anything about. And that was the most significant problem.”
“I suppose, on hindsight, Jan should have ignored the bystanders,” said Wilson. “It’s hard when people are running up to you and saying do this, do that, do this… and she didn’t know what they knew or didn’t know. She started to do what they suggested, then realized that what they suggested wasn’t going to work. They were telling her to position the engine under the power lines and we can’t do that.
“Jan could have ignored the hysterical bystanders at the scene and followed her own normal protocols, but they had seen the fire and she hadn’t. So she took their word at first and there was some confusion there and that probably could have been done a little better.”
“There’s just no way in hell you’re going to get an engine down that driveway,” Wilson said. “There’s a dog leg to the side. You can get a pick up in and out of there, but you’ll never get a 30-foot long engine in and out of there.”
Shorty often parks a school bus in his driveway, having no trouble maneuvering it, a much longer vehicle than the pumper truck, into the disputed space.
Wilson said that the people directing Wasson-Smith thought “she could just drive the truck back to the back where the fire was. “But that was not possible,” insisted Wilson. “It wasn’t going to happen. And that did cause delay.”
Wilson said that it could have been a lot worse. There were buildings on both sides that could have become involved. A shed on the west side of the garage did burn, and the shed behind it was backed up to another small building right next to the house.
“The fire could easily have spread through those buildings and taken out more buildings and another structure,” said Wilson. “There was enough radiant heat there that it could have caught Shorty’s house on fire. I’d have to say it was not our finest hour. But it definitely could have been worse.”
Chief Wilson had special praise for Tony Pardini.
“Tony Pardini did a great job. He and several other bystanders got garden hoses and kept the fire from spreading to some of those other buildings. It burned the back lawn of Shorty’s house fairly close to his house. So their initial actions were critical while we were getting there and having trouble with the engine.”
Wilson pointed to the district’s funding limitations as partial explanation for Saturday’s near disaster.
“As you know, we’ve been doing a fund-raiser for apparatus. That Boonville engine is an early 1980s vintage truck. And it’s actually one of the newer, better trucks we have. But on our present budget we can’t buy a lot of new equipment. When we run stuff that’s as old as what we have that type of problem can definitely happen. It’s not necessarily foreseeable or preventable. You can’t very well rebuild every truck every year. But we were not real pleased with that engine problem.”
The Community Services District has upgraded some of its smaller, first response trucks from donations from PG&E. But although there’s probably enough money in the reserves for at least one new engine, the district hasn’t gone shopping for a new structure engine yet. With any luck at least one new engine will be added to the fleet by June.
Shorty Adams can be reached at 895-3753. He is grateful for the help and offers of help he and his family received and continue to receive. “I still have some garden hoses people left here,” he said. “I’d be happy to return them if I know who they belong to.”