Fire Department Log

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Woman Dies in House Blaze 


A 98-year-old Berkeley woman died Thursday in a blaze that confronted firefighters with a swarm of bees and a house crowded with the hoardings of a lifetime. 

An 11:36 a.m. call brought firefighters to Jessie Chico’s West Berkeley home at 3036 Dohr St. 

Inside the house, firefighters found their path blocked by piles of belongings, including many books, forcing rescue workers to thread their way through narrow paths. 

“It was one of the worst cases I’ve seen,” said Deputy Fire Chief David Orth. “There were some areas that were almost impassable.” 

Chico’s body was discovered in the bedroom. 

Orth said preliminary indications are that she died of smoke inhalation, though a final determination of cause of death won’t be issued until routine toxicology tests have been completed. 

One additional complication was the swarm of angry bees that confronted emergency workers at the scene. 

“There was a beehive in the house, probably under the eaves, and they were quite upset,” Orth. “It took a while for the smoke to do its job and calm them down.” 

In the meantime, several firefighters were stung, but none seriously enough to interfere with their duties, he said. 

The fire originated in a gas floor heater, though Orth said investigators may never be able to ascertain the precise cause. 

Because the fire led to a death, said Berkeley Police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the Alameda County Arson Task Force conducted an investigation Saturday which included investigators from the District Attorney’s office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

Orth said the blaze caused $100,000 in damage to the 87-year-old home and $30,000 in damage to its contents.