Jim Loftus, president of the Valley View Villas Owners Association up on Villa Drive above Gibbs Ranch, was home watching TV in his second-story condo when his next-door neighbor banged on his door and told him “There’s a fire down there!”
Loftus ran to his back balcony to look down the brush-covered hillside below. His neighbor pointed at the floor and said, “No, down below us!”
That June 6 fire prompted hasty evacuations, destroyed four condo units in a 14-unit building, damaged several other condos, displaced 20 people, and injured one firefighter who was overcome by heat and dehydration.
Two months later, the four destroyed units have been leveled, three units are still red-tagged for damage that’s yet to be repaired, Loftus says, and as of this week, Cal Fire investigators say the cause is still undetermined.
Loftus, one of two homeowners association presidents in the gated Gibbs Ranch Villas community, says he disputes a Tuolumne County Sheriff’s account placed online during the blaze on June 6 that states, “Cal Fire reports, flames broke out in a room of unit 108 in the condo complex.”
Cal Fire investigators now say that information was preliminary and unconfirmed.
“After a review of the radio and phone recordings from this incident, we cannot find a reference to the specific unit referenced in the TCSO Facebook posting,” Emily Kilgore, a fire prevention specialist with Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit said Wednesday. “The information posted by TCSO on Facebook on June 6th was preliminary information from first responders during initial suppression actions. After a thorough origin and cause investigation, the cause and specific point of origin of the Villa Fire was found to be undetermined.”
Point of origin
The four units destroyed were 107, 108, 109 and 110. Loftus showed where they all used to be on Tuesday, exactly six weeks since the fire broke out and scared so many hilltop residents west of Dragoon Gulch and west of downtown Sonora.
Units 107 and 109 were on the first level; units 108 and 110 on the second. Loftus’ next-door neighbor, who first knocked on Loftus’ door when the fire broke out, lived in unit 108. Loftus lived in unit 110.
Loftus, 72, was watching TV about 5:30 p.m. when he changed channels to watch a news program. Within two or three minutes his next-door neighbor came banging on his door. Cal Fire said the blaze was first reported at 5:36 p.m.
“He said there’s a fire down there and I thought he meant a fire down the hill,” Loftus said. “I went to the window and he saw where I was looking and he said no, down below us, down here. He was pointing at the floor. I understood he meant the the fire was burning in one of the units below.”
Both men went on the back deck for a moment, then Loftus ran out front to a closet and grabbed a hose. He took the hose to the back deck, screwed it on a spigot and started hosing water in the direction of smoke, which he believed was coming from unit 107, below his next-door neighbor’s place.
“There wasn’t any fire in my place or in 109,” Loftus said. “I could see a lotta smoke. It was getting too hot near the wall.”
Loftus said the hose he was using was too short so he ran out front and grabbed another longer hose that was already screwed on a spigot out front. He said he dragged the hose through his place and out on the back deck where he continued spraying water over on unit 108 next door, and on unit 107 below unit 108. He had to reach out and direct the hose around a privacy wall between his deck and his next-door neighbor’s deck.
Then he heard a crash and he saw a curling flame shoot out, near the floor level for unit 108 next door.
“I didn’t stay much longer,” Loftus said. “I thought the other side of the privacy wall was on fire.”
Intense radiant heat
Firefighters learn that in house fires and other interior structure fires, intense radiant heat can be more threatening than flames. Room temperatures in a fire can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level, 600 degrees at eye level and 1,500 degrees at the ceiling. There was still no fire inside Loftus’ condo but he could see haze and smoke inside.
“I believe that smoke was coming from the attic space above my place,” Loftus said. “It was getting in somehow and I left. I carried my hose out to the front deck and I could see a 90-year-old woman being helped out on a walker.”
The woman, a resident of unit 107, was followed by her son, who also lived in 107. The son was holding his arms up behind his mother to make sure she didn’t fall, Loftus said. By now Loftus knew there were no residents left in units 107, 108, 109 and his place, unit 110. The woman and her son were out of unit 107, his next-door neighbor from unit 108 had already left, unit 109 had been kept vacant for the past year and was unoccupied, and he lived alone in unit 110.
Loftus said he’s a retired electrician so he ran around his building to where the power meters are and he shut off the electrical mains for all four condos that were burning or about to burn.
Three other units sustained significant damage and they are all red-tagged, Loftus said.
Loftus’ bedroom collapsed into unit 109 as the fire spread. Firefighters on 14 engines responded, along with seven water tank trucks, and five supervisors, according to Cal Fire.
Firefighters dressed for structure protection worked wearing flame-resistant gear, breathing apparatus and tanks strapped to their backs. The fire was declared contained at 9:46 p.m., four hours and 10 minutes after it was reported. The fire did not spread to fuel-carpeted slopes below the burned condo building.
In late April and early May, a month before the fire broke out, workers cut a lot of oak, manzanita, buckbrush and other brush from the rear of the 14-unit condo building, creating additional clearance of 150 feet from the building to the thick vegetation below, Don Smith, president of another homeowners association in the gated Gibbs Ranch Villas community, said in June.
Smith said access roads for the climb up to Gibbs Ranch Villas are wide but the hilltop neighborhood was built 45 years ago on a cul-de-sac. Sanders said the roads there are built to code for firefighting responders, and crews had zero issue getting access to the June 6 incident.
Loftus lost everything he owned, he said, including his wallet, cell phone and clothes. He’s been staying with his sister in Sonora. At least three of his former neighbors remain displaced.
About three weeks after the fire, Loftus visited with people who still live in undamaged condo units in the same building, and he spoke to three different fire investigators who work for insurance companies.
Loftus shared information provided by a representative of Travelers Casualty Insurance of America.
“We have been pursuing a third-party for potential reimbursement of payments made for damages,” Jeffrey Oberheim, a claim professional for Travelers Casualty wrote in a July 1 letter addressed to Loftus, as president of Valley View Villas Owners Association. “We have been unable to recover these payments, and do not believe that further action would lead to a recovery.”
Loftus said the letter means insurance investigators, like Cal Fire investigators, have been unable to find evidence of how and where the fire started.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.