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Injured Modesto firefighter in a coma

The veteran Modesto firefighter who fell through the roof of a burning building late Friday is in a medically induced coma and likely will be hospitalized for more than a month, fire officials said Monday.

Doctors in the burn unit at the University of California at Davis Medical Center say Jim Adams, a 24-year veteran of the Modesto Fire Department, suffered more serious burns than originally thought, Modesto City Firefighters Association president Cecil Ridge said Monday.

"The good news is that his internal organs are functioning correctly and he's breathing," Ridge said in a phone interview from the UC Davis burn unit. "The bad news is it's significantly worse than we expected."

The other firefighter injured in the blaze, Jason Clevenger, is expected to be released from Doctors Medical Center in Modesto in several days. He may be transferred to the UC Davis burn center to consult with burn specialists, Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said.

Clevenger, 32, is alert and in good spirits, Patino said. "He wants to get back at it as soon as he can," Patino said. Clevenger was burned over 10 percent of his body.

Doctors at first thought Adams, 46, had burns on about 30 percent of his body. Now they say Adams suffered third-degree burns — the most serious kind — on close to 50 percent of his body, including both hands, Ridge said.

Adams is on a ventilator in a medically induced coma. The coma is meant to keep Adams' body at rest so he can heal, Ridge said. Adams had surgery Monday morning that allowed doctors to evaluate his burns, Ridge said.

Adams is a married father of two adult sons. He received a medal of valor for an act of heroism after a 2000 fire in west Modesto that endangered a 10,000 gallon propane tanker.

"He's one of our best at what he does," Ridge said. "It's difficult to see somebody as strong and healthy as he was, to have this happen to him."

Ridge and other firefighters are taking turns driving to Sacramento to lend whatever support they can to Adams' family. They're not the only ones reaching out. Fire departments from across the country have sent messages of support. A Facebook page dedicated to the injured firefighters has more than 1,000 members.

Retirees share their stories

Retired fire captains from Sacramento and Stockton who've suffered burn injuries met with the Adams and Clevenger families to tell them what to expect on the road to recovery.

One was Oscar Barrera, who was burned in a 1997 house fire that killed two Stockton firefighters. In that case, a homeowner had installed a heavy dance floor on the second floor of her house. It collapsed on firefighters, who were unaware of the threat hanging over their heads, Ridge said.

The fatal Stockton fire is an example of how unpredictable firefighting is, Ridge said.

So was Friday's fire.

The accident happened just six minutes after firefighters arrived at 2308 Coston Ave. and found a single-family home swallowed by smoke.

Clevenger and Adams climbed a ladder to the garage roof to perform a procedure called vertical ventilation, Patino said. The idea is to cut a hole in the roof of a burning building to release pent-up toxic gases, smoke and heat.

"It's like popping a blister," Ridge said.

The hole acts like a chimney, sucking out smoke, which improves visibility for firefighters or anyone trapped in the fire.

"There are times you can hardly see your hand in front of your face, and the sound of the fire is like a freight train, and things are falling and cracking and breaking, and above you, you're hoping to hear that sound of that chain saw so they can cut that hole," Patino said.

The procedure is "very common," Patino said.

But like all aspects of firefighting, it carries risks. If not performed properly, cutting the hole can create an explosion known as a backdraft.

That's not what happened Friday night. The roof simply gave way beneath Adams and Clevenger.

Adams went up the ladder first. He tapped the roof with a metal tool called a rubbish hook, like a blind person taps a sidewalk with a cane. A firefighter uses the tool to test the stability of a roof before stepping on it. Once on top of the garage, Clevenger prepared to use his chain saw to cut into the roof.

But smoke stalled the saw, Patino said.

As Clevenger started the chain saw again, he felt his feet sink into the roof, as if he were standing on a mattress, he told Patino.

"Before he could say, 'Jim, we need to get off the roof,' it failed," Patino said.

Both men fell into the burning garage, where the fire had started when a woman living at the house dropped a candle next to a gas-powered generator. The woman and her two children escaped unharmed.

When the roof collapsed, the fire received a fresh dose of oxygen. That turned the structure into an inferno, Patino said.

Clevenger got to his feet and used an ax from his belt to clear a path to where he thought the door was, Patino said.

Adams had to be pulled out by the fire department's Rapid Intervention Company. That's a crew of three firefighters on stand-by at every working fire. The crew's sole purpose is to rescue downed firefighters. It's been at least seven years since an RIC crew has been pressed into service, Patino said.

The crew got Adams out of the burning building in less than two minutes, Patino said.

The Fire Department will write a report about the accident and convene an investigation panel.

"There's always something to be learned from these accidents, even if we did everything right, as we believe we did," Patino said. "We try to take as much of the risk out of the situation as we can. In this case, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't have put that ladder on that roof."

Detective work begins

California Division of Occupational Safety and Health officials will inspect the equipment used in Friday's fire and make sure the firefighters involved received the legally required amount of training.

Fire officials will sort the charred debris piece by piece and attempt to reconstruct the roof. That will give clues about why the roof collapsed.

Neighbors said the house was foreclosed on several years ago and sat vacant for two years.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/ BeeReporter.

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