RANDI ROSSMANN AND HANNAH BEAUSANG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | June 5, 2018
Firefighters Tuesday afternoon fought a large fire at a Schellville wooden pallet factory that forced neighborhood evacuations, blew up a propane tank and drew almost 100 firefighters from Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.
The three‑alarm fire on Fremont Drive was at the Sonoma Pacific Co., the same pallet business that burned in a massive fire in 2013 and suffered a smaller fire in 2007.
The blaze became the first for which emergency personnel used a new alert procedure, developed after the October wildfires, to send a message to smartphones in a select geographic area. Early reports are that the message, similar to Amber Alerts for child abductions, worked as intended in alerting residents of a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius of the fire.
“It was able to be isolated to the impact area,” said James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas said when he learned of the fire, his first thought was, “Again? Oh, geez, here we go.”
He said he arrived to see a plume of black smoke and “a ball of fire” about 100 feet tall.
The 12:30 p.m. fire burned about 10 percent of the operation, Mulas said. The cause remains under investigation and damage to the business was estimated at about $200,000.
The fire was full contained by 5 p.m., said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, who helped supervise the fire response.
Just after 1 p.m. the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation for a half‑mile around the property at 1180 Fremont Drive due to the threat of explosions and fire. About 500 residents were evacuated, Mulas said.
Cynthia Owings, an architect who has lived in a rented home on the nearby RV storage lot for about four years, said she was working at the small farmhouse when the blaze broke out. Her roommate, Maurice Horn, first spotted the fire and told her to evacuate.
She grabbed her computer and a few belongings and headed to the nearby fire station.
“We moved in right after the fire in 2013,” Owings said. “I never dreamed another fire would happen. I feel blessed to be alive.”
The evacuation order was lifted just before 3 p.m. but several nearby roads remained closed, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Robert Mortensen, facilities manager for Sonoma Pacific Co., said about 40 employees evacuated the site.
Soon after getting word of the fire, Mortensen heard “little pops” and then the propane tank blew, he said. The large tank went airborne and landed on Fremont Street.
No injuries were reported from the explosion or fire, Cal Fire Capt. Will Powers said.
About 90 firefighters responded from three counties along with 28 engines, two air tankers ,and at least one helicopter and bulldozer.
The fire damaged about seven recreation vehicles on a nearby property, Mulas said, with two that may have been hit by remnants of the exploded propane tank. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from reaching another 58 RVs, he said.
The fire appeared to have started toward the back of the property. Huge mounds of ash were left of what apparently had been stacks of pallets, mulch and debris, and some commercial structures. Some vehicles also burned, including what appeared to be a cargo container and trailer.
“It’s a lot of destruction and we feel like we’ve got a handle on it. It could have been worse,” said Akre, the Sonoma Valley fire chief. He estimated the fire was contained to about a half acre of the business property.
John Brewer, who has worked on and off as a truck driver for the nearby E K Excavating for about 30 years, said he saw flames reaching the top of a nearby metal tower and burn power lines. He described the scene as a “giant barbecue.”
“The flames were just incredibly high – you could feel the heat all the way out to the road,” he said.
He said Tuesday’s fire was smaller in size and scope than the 2013 blaze, but was it was still cause for concern.
His company used its water truck to assist firefighter efforts for a couple hours, he said. The same truck was used to aid first responders during October’s fires in Glen Ellen, he said.
The fire was near the Schell‑Vista fire station, which was being used as an Election Day polling place. The election workers evacuated, moving to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 20505 Broadway. The church already was a voting location.
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The new alert procedures used for the first time Tuesday were developed after the county received harsh criticism for the way it alerted residents after the October wildfires, the most destructive in state history.
Under the procedures, for mandatory evacuations the county will use a “wireless emergency alert” system to send messages to smartphone users found inside a designated area determined by the county. If a smartphone in that area is turned on, the device will vibrate and an alert will pop up on the screen, said Briana Khan, a spokeswoman for the county.
Sheriff’s dispatchers, in coordination with county emergency management officials, sent out two alerts Tuesday, one in English at 1:28 p.m. and a second in Spanish at 1:39, Khan said.
Akre said the 2013 fire on the same property was worse than Tuesday’s blaze. The 2013 fire started when sparks from a tow truck pulling a car dolly ignited dry grass along the road near the business. The flames spread and ignited 40‑foot stacks of wooden pallets and burned 40 acres. Damage then was estimated at $1 million.
The 2007 fire was linked to a “heat-treatment box” designed to kill any pests in the pallets.
The first firefighters to the scene immediately ordered more help as the fire burned wooden pallets and generated a dark plume of smoke.
Schellville is a rural Sonoma Valley crossroads community that connects Sonoma and Napa counties. The business is on a major route and the CHP closed several surrounding roads including Fremont Drive at Broadway, Highway 12 at Watmaugh Road and Fremont at 8th Street East.