Fire erupted from the home at 4109 Oak Street in Dunsmuir just before 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 17, setting trees and the fence between houses ablaze.
Kirsten Sisson’s hot Dunsmuir afternoon got a little hotter Saturday when the house next door to hers caught fire and burned for a spectacular, suspenseful half hour.
Fire erupted from the home at 4109 Oak Street just before 3 p.m., setting her trees and the fence between houses ablaze. Neighbors poured water on them with two garden hoses until the fire department arrived. The burned house was gutted, but still stood. No other homes were damaged. No one was injured.
Ryan Miller had been alone at his home before it burned. He said that he had been taking care of three sick kittens and took a break to fix himself lunch. “It was just a sandwich,” he said. “I didn't turn on the stove.” He then left the house to help his neighbors. “I looked up and my house was on fire!”
Flames pouring out of the back porch, Miller dashed in the front door to rescue what pets he could. He managed to save two dogs and three kittens before being driven back. “Inside I couldn’t take a breath because the smoke was so thick and black,” he said.
First to respond was Mark McElhiney, who had been driving north on Dunsmuir Avenue. He spotted a towering column of black smoke coming from down Oak Street and ran to the first neighboring house, owned by Tracy Mikich.
“There were these boys sitting on the porch smoking and I asked them if anyone had called 911 and they said ‘Why?’ I told them the house next door was on fire,” McElhiney said.
McElhiney ran east to Sisson’s house and stood in her yard yelling, “Get out! Get out! There's a fire! Get out now!” Then he dialed 911 on his cell phone.
Sisson said that she had just settled in with a group of friends for a bridal shower when she heard McElhiney out front. “We thought we smelled smoke earlier,” she said, “And a couple of us checked, but we didn’t see any smoke.” She said it was about half an hour after that that she heard someone in her yard yelling.
For the next half hour, as Oak Street awoke to the event in a slow panic, Sisson didn’t know if her home would survive the day. She pulled out two garden hoses, and neighbors who had run over from across the street trained them on the side of her house facing the fire. Tim Jaramillo was one. “The trees were catching fire,” he said. “We kept hosing on the fence and the tree on the corner of the house.”
The first emergency response was sheriff’s officer Sam Kubowitz. He kicked in the front door to check to see if anyone needed to be evacuated. Finding no one, he saw another possible threat to safety. “I saw citizens trying to put out the fire,” he said. “I told them to stop and get away.” Kubowitz later conveyed his concern of explosion should the flames reach a propane tank.
Terrance Clemens stood in Mikich’s yard and aimed his hose at the propane tank that sat at the corner behind the burning house, away from the fire but close to his friend’s home. He also sent water directly into the heart of the inferno.
“I knew all I could do was hit it with a hose,” he said. “I knew I couldn't put it out, but I needed to keep it from spreading. Man, the flames were 40 to 50 feet high!”
As a crowd of concerned neighbors and spectators gathered, Sisson wrapped her arms around a small dog and watched helplessly as huge tongues of orange flame surged toward her house. Miller, the last occupant of his burning home, screamed, “Why?” Mikich punched frantically at her cell phone and yelled, “Is my house going to burn down? Where is the fire department?”
The first fire response was fire chief Dan Padilla. Five minutes later, the first engine arrived, followed by two others a minute or two apart. The firemen had the blaze under control in less than a half hour. The flames, as fearsome as they were, seemed to have stayed in the northeast corner.
The owner of the burned house, Tamora McCauley, returned from Redding later in the afternoon to find her home gutted. “I won’t move back in there,” she said, seeing what was once her home now a reminder of the loss of her favorite cat, a long-time companion, and the only known casualty. Three other cats escaped death by smoke inhalation by taking shelter in Miller’s room in the basement.
As the embers of the burned house cooled, two points of resentment smoldered in the neighborhood. One was the fire department’s response time. “There’s a fire department a football field away,” said Steve Jaramillo. “Where were they?”
Afterward, though most present estimated the fire department response time to be 15 to 20 minutes, some complained of a half hour wait. Hours later, that notion of the longer wait time persisted in the small neighborhood.
Mark McElhiney, as well as being largely responsible for the continued existence of the homes on either side of a burned house on Oak Street, also deserves credit for creating a timeline of the event. After alerting the neighborhood of its peril, he used his cell phone to document the event. He took many pictures, each labeled with the time it was taken. His timeline documents the response time from the 911 call to when the first engine arrived as nine minutes. In brief:
2:54 pm, Called 911
2:57 pm, Officer Kubowitz arrived
2:58 pm, Fire chief Padilla arrived
3:03 pm, First fire engine arrived
3:27 pm, Fire under control
Chief Padilla said it was an outstanding response. He reminded anyone who thinks nine minutes too long that Dunsmuir’s firefighters interrupt their lives to respond to an emergency. “People have to recognize that volunteers have to respond from home, from work,” he said. “They respond to pagers, have to put on their emergency gear and get to the station to pick up apparatus, and away we go.”
He added, “There are occasions when we get to a scene people feel like it took a long time to respond.” He described the distortion of time experienced by people under the stress of watching their house burn. “To them,” he said, “nine minutes can feel like nine hours.”
The other sore spot frequently mentioned was the fact that the Dunsmuir emergency siren never sounded that afternoon. Padilla explained that really does not matter. “We are notified by a voice pager,” he said. He said the fire department knows of an emergency situation without the siren these days. “Before there were pagers, the siren went off for all emergencies. When they switched over to a pager system, [dispatch in] Yreka stopped setting it off for vegetation fires.
This was reported as a vegetation fire.”
He explained that the siren goes of unnecessarily for other emergencies only because it had been a part of Dunsmuir’s heritage for so long and was kept as a tradition.
Padilla said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
Hours after the danger to her house had passed, neighbor Tracy Mikich found herself irritated about the strong smell of smoke in her home. “I had to catch myself and realize that it wasn’t our house that burned,” she said. “I’m so grateful that they could stop it.”
McCauley, openly mourning for her cat, said that she did not care about the things she lost. “I’ll go on. Dust myself off, as they say.” Her house was fully insured.
Kirsten Sisson said that she is thinking about incorporating pictures of the fire into the bridal shower album. Staring at 4109 Oak Street she said, “It was supposed to be a fun, exciting day, but not like this.”
An account has been set up at US Bank for anyone who would like to donate to help homeowner Tamora McCauley and her two sons following the loss of their home. Donation jars can also be found throughout town.