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Homeowners’ Possessions Hamper Firefighters

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 12:51:00 PM

Firefighters waged a two-hour battle against heavy flames in the predawn hours Wednesday, battling to save a South Berkeley home after a neighbor had rescued one of its two occupants. 

Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong said the initial call to 911 operators reported screams coming from a home at 2127 Russell St. Moments later a second call reported heavy flames coming from the house. 

“On arrival, firefighters saw heavy flames showing on the home’s west and north sides and from the windows,” he said. 

The two homeowners were standing outside when trucks arrived, one just rescued from the home by a neighbor, he said. 

But when firefighters tried to enter the home, they found the doorways and windows blocked by large amounts of personal belongings. 

Unable to enter the home, firefighters could only pour water into the structure through windows and vents until one of the crew was able to force his way into a second-floor window. 

Once in the home, a firefighter later told Deputy Chief Dong, “it was like being nine feet tall,” walking on accumulated materials that were spread three feet deep through much of the home. 

Asked what the items consisted of, Dong replied, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” 

The fire was finally brought under control at about 5:30 a.m., after causing an estimated $250,000 in damage, he said. The only injury reported was to a fireman, after debris from the blaze landed in his open eyes. 

Once the fire was out, staff from the city’s Public Works Department arrived with a backhoe and several 30-cubic-yard trash containers to begin removing debris from the house. They were still there Wednesday afternoon, he said. 

Neighbors had repeatedly complained about the accumulation of material inside and outside the home, and Assistant City Manager Jim Hynes e-mailed neighbors early Wednesday afternoon to report that “staff from Health and Human Services, Environmental Health, Building and Safety, Fire and Police have all tried on multiple occasions to assist the homeowners to address the health and safety issues ... but without the permission of the homeowners, we were never able to enter the home.” 

The city had won a court-issued nuisance-abatement order that allowed municipal workers to remove debris from the exterior side and back yards, he reported. 

“We are saddened by what happened in your neighborhood, and once we get a report from BFD, we will do a careful review to see what, if anything, could have been done differently,” he wrote. 

Deputy Chief Dong said the cause of the blaze remains to be determined..