A 9-year-old boy who was playing fort in the garage of a family home in East Palo Alto Tuesday accidentally started a fire that gutted the house after he dropped a candle onto a mattress, Menlo Park fire officials said.
The mother believed her son was still in the garage, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. The boy had been playing in the closed garage in a tent that was set on a pile of mattresses when the fire began. He became scared when the mattresses ignited and shouted for help through the door between the house and garage. His sister opened the door and screamed when she saw the thick smoke, Schapelhouman said.
The children's mother and an infant were asleep in a bedroom at the time and awoke to the girl's screams. The mother ran to the garage to find her son, but the smoke was so thick she could not see him, Schapelhouman said.
The boy had already run halfway down the street and was banging on neighbors' doors. Someone down the street took him in, but his mother was not aware that he had escaped. She tried unsuccessfully to get into the garage, possibly for a second time, but burned her arm during the attempt, Schapelhouman said.
When the fire began to spread rapidly, the mother returned to the home to retrieve her baby and fled the residence. Neighbors tried to control the blaze with garden hoses but were unsuccessful, he said.
The fire spread to the neighboring house, in which an elderly disabled woman was stuck in her bedroom. Her hired caregiver left during the blaze, which burned the home's eaves, leaving the woman behind, according to the woman's son and Douglas Murphy, one of the neighbors who helped fight the fire with a hose.
She was removed from her home and was not injured. She was able to return to her home after the fire was extinguished, Schapelhouman said.
Firefighters administered oxygen to a long-haired dachshund named Brutus that was rescued by the department from a back bedroom in the gutted residence, Schapelhouman said.
The oxygen was given through a special mask for pets that was part of a donation the department had received. The dog was not burned but suffered smoke inhalation, firefighters said. He was to be cared for by the Peninsula Humane Society.
"The good story is that everyone survived and there weren't any serious injuries. But the sad story is that this house is a loss. They have lost all of the contents and two vehicles -- they've literally lost everything," Schapelhouman said.
He did not know where the residents would be staying, but the Red Cross had been notified, he added.
Schapelhouman said the fire was accidental, but it highlights a critical message he hopes the public will heed. It's almost a clichÃ© about kids being unsupervised around any kind of fire. But such a fire is almost predictable "unless you really teach these kids the power of fire," he said.
"He was just having a good time. If I was a 9-year-old, I would probably be doing the same thing, playing in a fort or tent," he said.
The fire department will have two persons on fire watch at the house all night until about 7 a.m. to make sure the fire does not re-ignite. They will use a thermal imaging camera in each room to seek out hot spots, he said. The home had blown-in insulation, which also burns rapidly and can re-ignite, he said.
Firefighters responded in force because the neighborhood has had many tragedies in the past. The homes are older and are frequently surrounded by fencing, burglar bars and guard dogs, making approaching difficult when time is crucial, he said.
"This is the town where we've had a number of fatal fires. One of the largest fatal residential-structure fires in the U.S. was in this community, where nine people out of 13 living inside died -- five of which were children," he said.
"There are a lot of people living in a lot of houses because of the economy. We have to act fast. When you're here at a fire and you're pulling bodies out, it's a sad, sad day," he said.
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