After 30 years in the fire industry, Berkeley Fire Marshal John Fitch says last year’s 2441 Haste St. fire was a once-in-a-career event.
Fitch remembers sitting at home on the night of Nov. 18 and receiving alerts from his pager as the fire continued to grow. Beginning with light smoke issuing from a mechanical room in the basement shortly before 9 p.m., the blaze grew to become one of the biggest fires in the city’s history. In the wake of the six-hour fire, only a shell remained of the historic five-story Sequoia Apartment building and two popular restaurants.
The Haste Street fire was estimated to have caused $5 million in total damage, according to data from Berkeley Fire Department. In 2010, the fire department reported a little more than $1.5 million in total damage — far less than the total damage caused by the Haste Street fire alone.
In the last three years, only one fire has come close to the level of damage of the Haste Street fire. A total loss of $1.35 million was reported after a partial roof collapse at a Benvenue Avenue home last month. The value of the damage caused by this fire was only a little more than one-fourth the total of the Haste Street fire, according to the data.
But the damage caused was only one aspect of what made the Haste Street fire unique among the incidents Fitch has witnessed. According to the incident investigation report released Jan. 4, the fire originated within the elevator mechanical room, although the exact point of ignition and root cause could not be determined.
“Usually, it’s human cause that starts the fire,” Fitch said. “Electrical problems are more rare.”
Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong said some of the more common causes of fires in residential structures include unattended cooking, improper disposal of smoking materials or unattended use of candles.
But according to Fitch, fire response accounts for only a small portion of the department’s day-to-day activities. The 2005 to 2011 National Fire Protection Association Analysis Report states that the department responds to about 285 fires a year — a very small portion of the department’s 11,809 average total incidents.
The department spends more than 65 percent of its time responding to emergency medical requests including ambulance, EMS and rescue, according to data from the report.
“The BFD is primarily an ambulance service that is sometimes called upon to fight a fire,” said Matt Mitchell, a former commissioner on the Berkeley Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, in an email.
This ambulance service is supported by additional funds approved by voters in 2008. Due to the passage of Measure GG, all of Berkeley’s ambulances are now equipped with advanced life-support equipment, according to Mitchell.
Despite the magnitude of the Haste Street fire, none of the building’s 68 tenants was injured. This is consistent with the city’s record — over the past five years, fire-related injuries and deaths have remained low.
“We are very progressive with fire and life safety prevention,” Fitch wrote in an email.
Although injuries ranged between zero and 12 from 2005 to 2011, the department has consistently reported at most one fatality per year since 2005 from residential or structural fires. Berkeley falls slightly below California’s average deaths from fire, with a statewide average of five and one-half deaths per million population, according to data provided by the U.S. Fire Administration.
In June, the department’s first fire-related death of the year took place after an accidental house fire on Lorina Street killed a 26-year-old woman and injured a resident.
Overall, the total number of Berkeley Fire Department’s calls is consistent with an area of its population, according to statistics provided by Firehouse Magazine.
But over the years, the department has seen a decrease in fires and an increase in emergency response calls, which Fitch attributes to an aggressive effort to educate the public on fire safety. In the end, however, Fitch said fires are always unexpected and that when the department responds, it needs to be ready for an array of situations.
“We try to manage chaos,” Fitch said. “When we go into a scene, it is someone’s worst day of their life.”
Fitch said he knew the Haste Street fire would be a significant event as he watched the flames grow. Even today, the lasting effects are still visible on Telegraph Avenue.
“You don’t see fires like that often,” he said.