Fire destroys former city manager's home

No one injured in three-alarm blaze

The home of Palo Alto's former city manager, Frank Benest, was extensively damaged in a fire on Saturday afternoon.

The fire broke out in a laundry room. The home is in the 2200 block of Bryant St., between North California Avenue and Oregon Expressway. Flames quickly spread to the second floor and the attic, Deputy Fire Chief Catherine Capriles said. The home became fully engulfed in flames, and it is a complete loss, Capriles said.

Benest's 15-year-old daughter discovered smoke and called 911. She, a friend and a nanny escaped unharmed, according to Benest, who was not home at the time the fire broke out.

The blaze jumped to an adjacent home, causing minor damage to the roof and attic. Firefighters evacuated an elderly woman and two dogs. They were not injured, Capriles said.

The three-alarm fire began at 11:57 a.m. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park and Santa Clara County fire departments responded to the blaze, which was extinguished by 12:50 p.m. Firefighters were putting out hotspots at 3 p.m. Police Chief Dennis Burns and City Manager James Keene were on scene.

The fire was stubborn, and it was tricky to contain, Capriles said. The back part of the home had been remodeled and had numerous small spaces containing smoke and flames. It is common for fires to begin with a clothes dryer, she added.

Benest and his daughter are the sole occupants of the home. Their insurance carrier will take care of supplying them with another place to stay, he said. He was on Caltrain on his way home from San Francisco at the time of the fire.

Benest was Palo Alto's city manager for 8 and a half years, starting in 2000. Since his retirement, he has been allowed to stay in the house he co-owns with the city until his two children have graduated from high school, according to the city.


Posted by Bike Commuter, a resident of Ventura
on May 3, 2014 at 6:15 pm

So glad no one was hurt!

How very sad for Mr. Benest's family to experience the loss of their home.

This incident can serve as a reminder for backing up our computers to the cloud as well as cleaning out the dryer vents.

I am hopeful the Palo Alto community will reach out and offer the Benests our support.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 3, 2014 at 6:54 pm

I was there!! The police evacuated us all! [Portion removed.] I appreciate the firefighters but lets give credit where credit is due. Police saved lives today, firefighters saved property

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 3, 2014 at 7:21 pm

To the person who knows little about what firefighters do and how they operate; maybe you should read up and talk to a firefighter about what takes place at a fire and how without them many people could die from fires.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 3, 2014 at 7:37 pm

Hey neighbor, I said I appreciate what they did!! Love them, great work! Just wanted the set the record straight, the police evacuated us not the firefighters. And your right. I don't know much about either profession. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Digger, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2014 at 9:04 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Pria Pudita, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 3, 2014 at 9:09 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Fire, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 3, 2014 at 9:37 pm

According to the Weekly story upon Mr. Benest's retirement: "He shares ownership of their Bryant Street home with the city, which owns 58 percent of the residence. He has the right to remain there until 2017, when his children will finish school in Palo Alto." So the city owns part of the house. Mr. Benest did quite lot of good for the city and endured personal tragedy (early death of his wife and his own tongue cancer). Now this. It take small, cheap minds to carp about his housing arrangement in this circumstance.

Posted by Retired Staffer, a resident of another community
on May 3, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Had a few tussles with Frank over union issues, but he was always honest and fair. Good luck on your rebuilding.

Posted by Katie, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 3, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Great job PAFD! It was a great job done by all firefighters! This is why our fire department is so very valuable! Every engine was needed PLUS other engines from other departments. Thank you all for risking your lives for doing your job. Your JOB is so valuable and not everyone can do it!! I am very thankful for all firefighters and what they do for OTHERS!

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2014 at 10:03 pm

This house burned very quickly. It moved up and toward the front with amazing speed. By the time PAFD arrived, it was fully engulfed and flamed by wind.

Posted by Limerick JoJ, a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2014 at 10:18 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Peninsula Commuter, a resident of another community
on May 3, 2014 at 11:21 pm

I was fortunate to work for Frank for several years and he is a first class guy who treated his employees with honesty and respect, even in difficult times. As others have said, Frank has experienced more than his share of personal tragedy. My best wishes and prayers for Frank and his family. He set a very high standard for other city managers to follow.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2014 at 9:02 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by Student42, a resident of Midtown
on May 4, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Student42 is a registered user.

The inaccuracy of this article is ridiculous. The nanny wasn't there. The only people who were there were the two girls, one of whom (I assume the friend) was on the phone with the emergency services, and the other was breaking down outside. We all saw the nanny run up afterwards.

Editor's Note: The information on who was in the residence was provided by Frank Benest at the scene after the fire had been extinguished.

Posted by Tripp Hudgins, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2014 at 10:42 am

Tripp Hudgins is a registered user.

I am glad to hear that everyone is safe. Still, this is terrible. I work at First Baptist Church which is located almost across the street from the house. If there is anyway we can be helpful, please let us know.

Posted by AllenE, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2014 at 11:39 am

AllenE is a registered user.

I got there the same time as the first fire truck. We saw the flames from Page Mill and Foothill Expressway. The fire truck passed us when we were waiting for a left turn on Bryant. I do not know about how to fight a fire but would certainly like to know why it took so long for the firemen to put water on the fire. To say that the house was "fully engulfed" when they got there is just not true. It is true that there were flames on the roof so it was clearly serious. I have pictures and a movie if anyone doubts what I say. My wife said the firemen did not look like they were "going to a fire". But I assume they were doing the right thing. They put up a ladder and entered the second story, perhaps to see what was going on before putting it out. I believe the first thing they put water on was the house next door.

Basically, it looked like they wrote off the 2257 hours and focused on making sure everyone was out, and keeping the fire from spreading. But it just did not look like the house was "fully engulfed in flames" when they got there, which someone said was 10 minutes after they were called. That also seems like a long time if true.

What I am asking is for the fire department to explain to us laymen what happened, what the priorities were and why they did not seem in a hurry to put out the fire. I trust they were doing the right thing but I would like everyone who watched to believe that. I heard a lot of negative comments and I want the FD to defend what they did.

Posted by AllenE, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2014 at 11:40 am

AllenE is a registered user.

oops, we saw smoke, not flames. We didn't see flames until we got to the house.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Marie is a registered user.

So glad Mr. Benest and his family are OK. He was an outstanding city manager. For those who carp about his housing arrangements - can you think of a better investment of city funds? The return when he sells will far exceed any other investment of city funds by PA or PERS.

Posted by exnav, a resident of another community
on May 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm

exnav is a registered user.

Most fire departments (I'm assuming this includes Palo Alto) use either the acronym RECEO or the acronym REVAS when prioritizing actions after arriving at the scene of a building fire. The R in both acronyms is for Rescue which is always first priority. This includes rescuing victims and searching for possible victims in a building. The E is for Exposures. That means placing priority on protecting the neighbors house from exposure to the fire. The C in the first acronym is to make an effort to Confine the fire. The V in the second acronym is Ventilation (usually accomplished by putting a hole in the roof to ventilate the smoke and hot/explosive gasses that build up in a fire. The second E in the first acronym is Extinguish the fire. The A in the second acronym is Attack the fire. The O is to thoroughly Overhaul/Salvage the building to assure complete extinguishment after the fire is put out and to salvage peoples possessions (usually an ongoing process from beginning to end. The S in the second acronym is Salvage/Overhaul. In either case one can see that actually putting water on the fire is not necessarily the first priority when arriving at a fire, especially when short staffed. Of course, depending on the situation, it is possible that first priority items can be dealt with by getting water on the fire immediately, but that is not always the case...

Posted by rick, a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

rick is a registered user.

thank you exnav

Posted by Lynn Huidekoper, RN, a resident of Menlo Park
on May 6, 2014 at 1:46 am

Lynn Huidekoper, RN is a registered user.

My choral group had an all day choral workship at the First Baptist Church across from the fire. Our vantage point was seeing the back of the house with the flames getting more intense, higher and higher from the wind.

I used to volunteer with the Red Cross in Disaster Services so knew that this was a serious 3-alarm fire. We saw Menlo Park responding and other engines were brought in. The incident commander doesn't call for mutual aid unless it's serious. It goes to show you what challenges firefighters have with access to the part of the building burning and trying to keep it from spreading to adjacent buildings. Glad no one was injured esp. the firefighters. We are lucky to have such great resources.

Posted by PAmoderate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 6, 2014 at 11:39 am

PAmoderate is a registered user.


I'm not sure when you got there, but I was there before the first fire truck and the whole right side of the house was already up in flames and through the roof.

If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

To post your comment, please click here to Log in

Remember me?
Forgot Password?
or register. This topic is only for those who have signed up to participate by providing their email address and establishing a screen name.

David's Tea: now open in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 6 comments | 2,832 views

Foothills Park: a world away
By Sally Torbey | 17 comments | 1,889 views

On Tour at Selective Schools: Chapman, La Verne, Redlands, Whittier
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 1,597 views

Two Days to Save This Dog?
By Cathy Kirkman | 13 comments | 919 views

It Depends... Disguising Real Characters in Fiction
By Nick Taylor | 0 comments | 249 views