A spectacular $4-million Thanksgiving Day blaze that destroyed a senior citizens apartment complex under construction in Huntington Beach was the most expensive fire in the city's history, but it could have been much worse, fire officials said Friday.
"This fire was literally minutes away from extending into three-story office buildings, and then it would have gone to Beach Boulevard--and then we would have had an Anaheim fire on our hands," said Huntington Beach Fire Chief Raymond C. Picard, referring to the 1983 Anaheim blaze that raced across 17 acres, burning 393 apartments and 53 buildings and leaving 1,288 homeless.
"The major thing different," said Huntington Beach arson investigator Gary Glenn, "is we didn't have a Santa Ana wind blowing. Had we had those conditions, I can guarantee you we would have lost a lot more than this, no matter what we did. Plus we got a lot of help from other agencies. We don't have enough guys on duty to fight this kind of fire."
Several Minor Injuries
About 85 firefighters from Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Fountain Valley, Westminster, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Orange County fire departments fought the blaze. Several firefighters suffered minor injuries from the heat and were treated at the scene.
"This is the largest fire loss in Huntington Beach history," Picard said. "We've had other spectacular fires--oil wells, etcetera--but not as large cost-wise."
Fire officials said that by concentrating large amounts of water on two three-story office buildings next to the construction site, they were able to stop the fire before it spread. Homeowners downwind who used garden hoses to put out burning embers blown onto their roofs also helped to contain the blaze, they said.
Authorities said they are continuing to investigate what they termed the suspicious origin of the fire. Picard said the location of the fire's origin must be determined before it can be established whether it was deliberately set.
Some Damage Nearby
The fire was largely confined to the site of a four-story, 148-unit housing complex for senior citizens at Main and Florida streets, across Main from the Five Points shopping center. Another $150,000 in damage was sustained by neighboring businesses, homes and equipment, Picard said.
Picard said Thursday that there were reports of a van leaving the area before the fire was noticed, suggesting that it may have been arson. But Picard said Friday that investigators learned after interviews and cross-checking the 911 emergency calls that the people seen leaving the area were simply fleeing for safety and to summon authorities after the fire broke out.
"We heard they (contractors) fired a couple of people and they were upset," arson investigator Glenn said of the construction project. "But we've also heard that kids were seen playing there, too, so I don't know."
Because of a slim staff at the Huntington Beach Fire Department, Picard said, investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were assisting with the inquiry.
Fire Department spokesmen said Sanport Development Inc. of Newport Beach and Glen Fed Development, the Encino building arm of Glendale Federal Savings & Loan, are the developers of the project and McCormick Construction of Burbank is the contractor.
Sanport and McCormick officials could not be reached for comment Friday. A spokesman for Glendale Federal Savings & Loan said: "We have no knowledge of why that building burned down, and we have received no threats."
Workers had left the site by noon Wednesday--28 hours before the fire was reported at 4:22 p.m. Thursday. Electrical wiring had not yet been installed at the wood-framed construction site, which was about nine months from completion.
About 52 cars and the roofs of seven homes up to half a mile area downwind of the construction site were damaged, but there was no significant damage to apartments in the area, a Huntington Beach Fire Department spokesman said.
The fire was so intense it created thermal currents that sent "firebrands," large chips of burning wood, onto a car dealership on Beach Boulevard about half a mile to the west.
At the height of the fire, residents of Wycliffe Gardens and the Huntington Terrace, nearby complexes for senior citizens, were forced to leave their rooms for up to three hours as a precaution.
"You should have seen it," said Conchita Meza, who lives on the 10th floor of the Wycliff Gardens. "I opened my door which leads to the hallway, and there are two great big windows. . . . I could have died when I saw the flames. I couldn't see the sky for the flames, they were so high."
"It scared the heck out of me," she said. "It was something terrible, unbelievable. On the main floor we have a big dining room, and all the great big windows are broken there. Some of the ladies on the seventh floor had their windows broken" from the intense heat.
Wycliffe Gardens administrator Jeanne Halverson said that, despite damage caused by the intense heat, "everybody's fine.
"There were no flames on this building," Halverson said. "We had damage from the high heat, a bunch of broken windows. The hallways were cleared of smoke, and the residents were allowed to sleep here. The residents' rooms had no smoke. We felt very lucky."