A spectacular fire of suspicious origin demolished a Huntington Beach senior citizens housing construction site Thursday afternoon, causing more than $1.5 million in damage and generating 150-foot-high flames that threatened a nearby occupied apartment tower for the elderly.
The firestorm ignited several balconies of the 14-story Wycliffe Gardens, where senior citizen residents were forced from their rooms and gathered in the downstairs lobby until the fire danger had passed. A nearby retirement home was briefly evacuated, and two unoccupied office buildings east of the construction site suffered damage.
Embers Blown 2,000 Feet
Burning embers from the blaze also blew 2,000 feet across Beach Boulevard and ignited wood shake roofs on at least five apartment buildings. The rooftop fires were extinguished by residents with garden hoses.
"People home eating Thanksgiving dinner actually put out their own fires," said Huntington Beach Fire Chief Ray Picard.
The five-alarm fire, reported at 4:22 p.m. Thursday, demolished the construction site of Five Point Court, a four-story, 148-unit housing complex for senior citizens at Main and Florida streets, across Main from Five Points shopping center. The complex is owned by Glen Fed Development of Encino, according to the Fire Department. Glen Fed's president is Mel Wynn.
Picard said the fire is of suspicious origin because witnesses reported seeing a van leave the construction site--where no work was going on because of the holiday--shortly before the flames were spotted.
The fire occurred down the street from Pacifica Community Hospital. The hospital did not have to be evacuated, but the blaze did cause concern.
"You can feel the flames from here. It's close," said a nursing supervisor.
The firestorm, fueled by wind and cool air at ground level, sent flames swirling out, said Battalion Chief Ed Vasile.
Flames Visible for Miles
"It was spectacular," he said.
The flames and smoke scarred the Thanksgiving Day sunset and could be seen for miles.
"The flames were higher than that building," said Police Sgt. Monty McKenna, referring to the Wycliffe tower. "It was scary."
The blaze caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the construction site and $10,000 in damage to two unoccupied, newly constructed, three-story office buildings, which suffered blown-out and cracked windows and burned facades, according to the Fire Department.
Vasile said an undetermined number of residents from Huntington Terrace, a retirement home at 18800 Florida St., were evacuated, then allowed to return to their residences after the fire was extinguished. A receptionist at the home declined to answer questions about the evacuation Thursday night.
The radiated heat from the blaze was so intense that it ignited first- and second-story balconies at the Wycliffe complex, Picard said. The heat also shattered windows of the dwelling units and of cars in the parking lot.
Residents were notified, through police loudspeakers and word of mouth, to leave their units in the tower and gather in the ground floor lobby, they said. Police carried many disabled residents down to the lobby, residents said.
The 185-unit complex houses about 265 residents, but many were away having Thanksgiving dinner with friends and families, said an office worker, Dorothy Gill.
Dorothy McDowell, 76, a 13th-floor Wycliffe resident, said she was watching a parade on television when she saw the fire.
"It went up like a matchbox. . . . The heat was terrible," she said. She ran out to check on her car and found its protective cover had melted.
A fellow 13th-floor resident, Evelyn Ohearn, 76, was writing Christmas cards when she heard the fire engines.
"I looked out and there were huge billows of big black smoke," she said. "It seemed so close."
At Huntington Beach Convalescent Hospital, 18811 Florida St., receptionist Peggy Morgan fielded telephone calls from patients' anxious relatives and assured them that the hospital was not endangered.
"Our residents just finished eating turkey dinner. We're all fine here," she told one caller.
Many of the 200 residents were with families for the day, and she advised relatives to wait until the fire and traffic had abated to return the residents to the hospital.
Chief Picard said the east wind sent "wood embers of considerable size" across Beach Boulevard, where they landed on several wood roofs. "Citizens pitching in" extinguished the blazes and prevented the fire from spreading and causing a massive disaster in the residential neighborhood.
"We were lucky from the standpoint that the citizens took care of their own homes. That's where the real luck is," he said.
Orange County Fire Department spokesman Greg Petersen said firefighters stripped wood shingles off three apartment buildings to eliminate the hazard of smoldering embers. He also knew of at least two more apartment buildings with charred spots on the roof, he said.
85 Firefighters Called
The blaze required the efforts of 85 firefighters from Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Fountain Valley, Westminster, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Orange County. The construction site was fully engulfed in flames when the first units arrived, spokesmen said.
The first firefighters approached the fire from Main Street, but the buildings were burning so intensely that after they laid their lines down, "they cut the hoses with axes and moved to Florida for a new attack," Vasile said.
Several firefighters suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene, he said.