A hot and fast fire devoured two Tooele homes Tuesday afternoon amid 90 degree-plus temperatures.
The fire started in a garage at 794 W. 700 South at about 3:45 p.m. Assistant Fire Chief Bucky Whitehouse for the Tooele City Fire Department, said by the time he arrived on-scene minutes later, the fire was well on its way to devour the home and a neighboring house.
“When we arrived, the garage was fully engulfed and inside the garage and to the front of the garage we had several ATVs and several vehicles that were engulfed,” he said. “And then the house to the west had started on fire because of the radiant heat. It extended over to that second house and got significant damage as well.”
Part of the reason for the fire’s speed was an olio of solvents and fuels in the garage of the first house, which was being used for mechanical repairs, said Whitehouse. The highly flammable products also increased the heat of the flames.
Mother Nature also played a role. It provided a steady breeze out of the northeast that blew smoke back onto firefighters and fanned flames in the structures, he said.
“Both fires, the fire in the house where it originated, and the fire where it had extended, had breached the roofline by the time we arrived,” said Whitehouse. “The wind was coming from the northeast at about 10 to 15 miles per hour, which spread the fire.”
The heat, too, made things difficult. Firefighters were limited as to how long they could spend fighting the fire at once. Due to the late-afternoon heat, and oven-like atmosphere from the fire and protective gear, they were at risk of overheating.
The 31 firefighters from TCFD and 12 from North Tooele County Fire District had to be cyclically pulled away from duty to check their vital signs and be given water and oxygen.
Because of the intensity of the blaze, firefighters could only fight it defensively from the outside. The homes’ interiors were too dangerous to allow firefighters in, Whitehouse said. Most of the battle was fought on the ground with hoses, but a ladder and fire engine also provided means for some support from above, said Whitehouse.
The fire was contained in just under two hours. Firefighters remained on-scene until 10:15 p.m. and then some returned Wednesday morning to sift through debris as part of an investigation into the fire. Whitehouse said the fire’s point of origin is simply too badly burned to be able to tell what started the fire, or even whether it was accidental or purposeful.
“[The length of time it took to contain the fire] is an example of how involved both houses were for the fire to take that long,” he said. “We have to have hard physical evidence to trace back [to determine a cause]. The detectives and state fire marshal have interviewed all those individuals to see what was going on and have not been able to determine whether anything was going on.”
The cause is currently undetermined.
A dollar amount of damage is also difficult to pinpoint, Whitehouse said, but both homes are considered to be total losses. Three people were living in the first house, and all three got out safely, though one man with a medical condition was treated for smoke inhalation, Whitehouse said. The residents of the second home had recently moved out of state, leaving that house vacant. The home was listed for sale.
“It’s unfortunate. Our hearts go out to both families,” said Whitehouse. “You’re never prepared for that type of destruction and that type of loss.”
Accounts have been created at Tooele’s Wells Fargo Bank under the names “Jackson Family Fund” and “Thomas Family Donation” to help the families recover.