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Storm Leads to Fatal Fire, Flooded Streets

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 08, 2008

A power outage caused by the heavy storm that swept through Northern California led to a Saturday morning fire that claimed the life of a Berkeley man. 

Richard Dury died after he was trapped in a bathroom by the flames that gutted a home at 1156 Keith Ave. Investigators suspect the blaze was caused by candles left burning after the storm knocked out power to the area. 

Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong said firefighters were summoned to the scene by a 911 call from neighbors at 2:26 a.m. 

“On arrival they found heavy fire on two floors,” he said. A second alarm was called at 2:33, bringing a total of 27 firefighters, two chief officers, five engines, two trucks and two ambulances to the scene. 

Dury’s caretaker had managed to escape the fire by leaping from a first floor window, but by the time the first firefighters arrived, flames were shooting out the windows, making entry impossible, said the deputy chief. 

The home was built on the downhill side of the street, with the residential floors beneath a third-floor garage and entry level.  

Flames had already consumed the floorboards on the uppermost level, preventing rescue efforts from above. The fire had also spread to nearby redwoods. 

It wasn’t until 4:53 a.m. that firefighters had the blaze under control. They found Dury’s body in the second floor bathroom, which had been heavily damaged in the fire. 

The dead man worked at the Shattuck Avenue Safeway store, where he was a popular figure. 

The fire, which started on the lowest level, was probably caused by candles the caretaker had lit because of a storm-caused power outage and left burning after he went to sleep for the night. 

“I really want to stress how important it is to have working smoke detectors,” said Dong. 


Storm havoc 

The storm kept firefighters, public works staff, city arborists and police busy fighting water backups, downed trees and an assortment of other emergencies. 

“During one 12-hour period we responded to 48 calls for downed power lines, fallen trees and flooding conditions,” said Dong. 

Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna said the city received a total of 225 calls for service during the storm, including a hundred downed tree reports and most of the rest for flooding. 

The worst flooding was on Bancroft Way and the Union Pacific RailRoad tracks in West Berkeley, where heavy flooding was dispersed by firefighters, public works crews and railroad staff. 

“That area took a huge hit last year,” Caronna said. 

“We used our hydro sub and our FlotoPumps,” said Dong, working between 10 a.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. 

The sub is a 1,000-gallons-per-minute heavy duty pump also dubbed “Big Bertha” for its prodigious output. The smaller pumps move about 120 gallons a minute. 

Caronna said the city has worked hard over the last two years to prepare for flooding at locations where storms typically bring problems. “Traditionally, we’ve had flooding at Malcolm X Elementary School, but this year we had prepared and there were no problems,” she said. 

The heaviest rains, dropping two inches on southwest Berkeley, came during a a four-hour period starting at 8 a.m. Friday. But public works crews had been on alert and working 12-hour shifts since the day before, and were ready for the downpour. 

Supervisors had been assigned to work night shifts, and workers were staffing switchboards after hours until calls dropped off, Caronna said. 

A mere five minutes may have spelled the difference for two workers who had been eating lunch in a pickup truck cab in the 1900 block of Seventh Street, Dong said. 

Five minutes after they had swallowed their last bites, a redwood tree, loosened by saturated soil and uprooted by the storm winds, toppled over, flattening the truck. 

Another redwood was saved from keeling over only by a third, which managed to keep it propped up. 

Because the first tree took out power lines, crews had to wait for Pacific Gas & Electric crews before they could chop up the fallen tree. 

Another tree toppled into a building in the 1300 block of Seventh, and yet another crashed in the 1200 block of Hearst Avenue, while the intersection of Ashby Avenue and Fulton Street was briefly closed after another tree took down a power line. 

A tree took down yet another power line at the intersection of Poppy Lane and Miller Avenue. 

“Fortunately, the city was well prepared because we held meetings in advance of the storm,” Dong said. Public works crews had been placed on 12-hour shifts. 

Fire stations, which keep empty sand bags for residents, ran out of their supplies several times during the storm. 

A PG&E representative said the storm caused 21 outages affecting 834 customers in Berkeley, while five outages in Albany cut power to 700 customers. For Oakland the figures were 62 outages affecting 8,700 customers, while in Richmond 40 outages cut power to 3,719 customers. 

Less than 1 percent of affected users were still without power by early Monday afternoon.