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Cat bed ignited by wall heater blamed in apartment fire


Published: December 19, 2008

AN ELECTRIC wall heater ignited a piece of plywood early Wednesday morning, almost destroying an apartment in a Pacific Grove triplex, according to Monterey Fire Division Chief Jim Gunter.

Thanks to three police officers — including PGPD Chief Darius Engles — who heard about the fire on their scanners, the residents were already outside when the fire engines arrived.

“The caller reported to dispatch, ‘There’s fire everywhere!’ and then the line went dead,” said Engles, who arrived at the complex at Forest and Gibson shortly after Sgt. Jeff Fenton and officer Angelo DiMarco.

The fire was in the front upstairs unit.

“Around the back, you could hear it roaring and popping,” as the windows blew out, said Engles, who was working patrol from 4 to 7 a.m. due to short staffing and officers out sick. “We started banging on doors and got everyone out.”

Within moments, some 18 firefighters were attacking the blaze, according to assistant chief Andrew Miller (who was Pacific Grove Fire Chief until PGFD became part of the Monterey Fire Department Tuesday morning). Four engines and a ladder truck came from three MFD stations and the Pebble Beach Fire station.

“The first-in company made the initial attack and got up to the second story,” Miller said, while others backed them up. Another crew climbed a ladder to the roof to see if the fire had gotten into the attic.

They knocked the flames down quickly enough to prevent their spreading to the downstairs unit or the detached apartment to the rear, according to Gunter. No one was injured, and the occupant’s four cats also escaped unharmed.

Although they were innocent bystanders, the cats are indirectly responsible. The resident had built a plywood contraption to hold catnapping baskets in the sun room, and a piece of the wood was quite close to the electric wall heater, according to Gunter, who investigated the cause and origin of the blaze.

The occupant told Gunter he hadn’t used the heater in three years.

“But if it was even one tick from ‘off,’ because it got so cold last night, the heat came on,” Gunter said. “The plywood was right on top if it and just got hotter and hotter and hotter.”

Gunter said burn patterns indicated that’s how the fire started, and he has photos to support his opinion, though insurance investigators will have the final say. He roughly estimated the damage at $100,000 to the structure — primarily the roof, walls and sun porch — and contents, though the insurance company will have the final say on that, too.

First test for new MFD

The timing of the fire allowed for an early test of the newly expanded MFD, which took over PGFD, and it proved the firefighters’ months of planning, preparation and training had the desired result, according to Miller.

“It was our first opportunity to run a working fire in the new system,” he said. “Everything worked flawlessly.”
Monterey Fire Chief Sam Mazza agreed.

“You can’t beat good luck sometimes,” Mazza said, because the residents benefited from a faster, more unified response than they would have gotten a day earlier, when Monterey and P.G. were still separate departments.

“And it really illustrates how well they worked together,” he said.

But he did mention a minor communications glitch in the initial dispatching of firefighters to the scene. According to Mazza, Monterey County Emergency Communications called for one engine and one truck, but other firefighters were listening and knew a structure fire required much more manpower, so they went anyway. Mazza said the problem stemmed from the new computerized communications plan created to handle the newly expanded MFD, and the flaw has already been fixed.

“We expect there will be little glitches in the system, but everybody’s aware of that potential and paying attention, and we’re not expecting any more problems,” he said.