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4-alarm fire rips through Menlo Park home

July 16, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Firefighters, who were on the scene for over five hours, said they haven't seen a fire this bad in Menlo Park in a decade. Flames devoured three townhouses early Thursday evening and the heat was so intense it melted a firefighter's mask.

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It happened on Susan Gale court -- a quiet cul-de-sac in the foothills near Alameda de Las Pulgas. Two firefighters were injured and crews said they would stay overnight to make sure this fire stays out.

The smoke and fire atop Susan Gale Court in Menlo Park was visible for miles. It burned fast and spread quickly through three town houses in the narrow cul-de-sac.

"It was very close. I tried to hose off unit number 19 myself to prevent from spreading," said neighbor Nic Phu.

The likelihood of this fire spreading was very high according to the Menlo Park fire chief. He says when he arrived he had serious concerns that this could be another Oakland Hills fire.

"It had tremendous potential. If we would've had a heavy wind this afternoon, not only would we have had this in the structure of origin, we would've had it in the neighborhood of origin," said Menlo Park Fire Dept Chief Harold Schapelhouman.

Fire crews from all over San Mateo County rushed to the scene. CalFire sent a helicopter to drop water on the town homes; however the firefighters' focus wasn't just on those three homes, but on the surrounding neighborhood as well. The roof of a nearby house also started burning after flying embers landed on it. Families in 15 homes west of the fire were evacuated.

"This is a high risk neighborhood," said Chief Schapelhouman.

It's high risk because of the structures themselves. This neighborhood was built in 1984 and all of the homes are wood framed with wood shake roofs.

"Wood shake is an old-fashioned, very handsome material, but it burns and now we've seen how very badly it burns," said neighbor Penny Howell.

It took nearly two hours to knock down this fire. Two of the three homeowners were home when the fire started, but they made it out safely.

One neighbor said all of the homes in the development are supposed to get fire-resistant roofs. The homes north of here have already gotten them.

Damage is estimated at $1 million.

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