Freak fire closes 49
Flames destroyed a south Nevada County family’s house, claimed countless antiques, and killed many of their pets after a wicked chain of events that started with a motor home fire Friday.
Highway 49 was closed for two hours as firefighters battled the fires.
“I must’ve had 200 boxes full of stuff,” said Louanne Witt, the owner of Antique Palace in downtown Grass Valley.
Firefighters were mopping up the scene when Witt and her 19-year-old daughter, Lindsay, arrived at their address, 21098 Clivus Road. In addition to the antiques, they lost two dogs, many of their 20-plus cats, and a vehicle.
The sequence unfolded quickly at about 3:20 p.m. on Highway 49 near Clivus Drive, where 79-year-old Donald Williams stopped his motor home on the southbound shoulder after it caught fire, according to firefighters.
Williams suffered second-degree burns to his lower legs after briefly trying to fight the fire, according to the California Highway Patrol. Williams went by ambulance to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, where he was treated and released.
Fire spread to grass on the west side of the highway, then shot to the east after a propane tank in the motor home sprayed 50-foot flames.
“I’m lucky it didn’t blow toward me,” said Higgins Fire Capt. Jerry Good, the first firefighter on the scene.
“It burst into flames,” neighbor Tracie O’Connell said of the motor home. “Within three minutes, it started exploding. It could’ve been the propane.”
Once on the highway’s east side, flames marched two acres up a slope of thick grass though Witt’s backyard and swallowed a Monterey pine next to her house.
Montereys “are just like torches. They just go up,” said Battalion Chief Rob Paulus of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Basically, the fire just swept up the slope.”
With Witt’s house quickly a lost cause, O’Connell and her parents, Nancy and Jack Spann, also neighbors, raced to the house next door, owned by U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Gary Fildes, and sprayed it with garden hoses.
Nancy Spann saved about a half-dozen of Witt’s cats, and one bit her on the lower lip. Her hair was doused with red retardant from an air tanker.
“I was glad to see the retardant,” Spann said with a relieved smile.
Firefighters called the incident a comparison study in home fire protection. Witt’s house was surrounded by tall grass and thick brush, while Fildes’ house had shorter grass, a rock wall and cement patio close to the house.
“Basically, the difference between her house and mine is that I had clearance around mine,” said Fildes, who listened to radio traffic while at his job and increasingly wondered about the proximity of his own house.
“Finally, one of my bosses said, ‘Why don’t you go home and see?'”
Witt learned about it from one of her shop employees. She can’t begin to estimate the value of the lost antiques.
“A lot of it was my mother’s, my grandmother’s and my great-grandmother’s,” she said.
Witt wasn’t sure how many of her cats died. About half lived inside, along with her dogs, she said. Some of the cats had been strays.
“They adopted me. I put the food out, and they came,” she said.
Witt said her family has another home in Auburn, which is where they’ll stay.
Crews were still at the scene at 8 p.m. Besides CDF and Higgins, firefighters from Nevada County Consolidated, Grass Valley, Penn Valley and a Shasta/Trinity CDF unit responded, along with Red Cross volunteers.
– Reporter Grace Karpa contributed to this report
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