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Hidden Hazards: Altered homes can put firefighters at risk

A "bad-luck house," one neighbor calls it.

It's the home at 2308 Coston Ave., where two Modesto firefighters were injured while battling a blaze last weekend.

It's the house where a mom and dad died a few years apart. They had endured the 1980 murder of their daughter-in-law and kidnapping of their baby grandson, though the child later was found safe.

Other family members who grew up in the home experienced tragedies as well, neighbor Bill Martin said. "Great people who had lots of misfortune."

All of which led to a succession of owners — seven title changes since 1992 — with only one of them attempting to maintain the home.

"It's been a mess for years," Martin said.

Any house can become a "bad-luck house" after years of neglect, vandalism or unapproved structural changes.

The Coston Avenue home caught fire Saturday when a woman living there dropped a lighted candle near a gas-powered generator she used because the electricity had been turned off. Gas spilled on the floor ignited, but she and her two children got out safely.

As Modesto firefighters James Adams, 46, and Jason Clevenger, 32, tried to cut a vent in the roof to let some of the heat escape, the roof collapsed. They rode the debris down to the garage floor and into an inferno. They were quickly rescued by other firefighters well-trained for just such a sudden life-or-death circumstance.

Adams is in the University of California Medical Center in Sacramento, beginning a long recovery from burns over half of his body.

Clevenger went to the burn center for consultation Wednesday and was admitted. He's expected to spend a couple of days there before going home to Ripon.

Meanwhile, Modesto fire officials spent much of the week trying to reassemble the rafter materials to understand why the roof collapsed. They are trying to determine whether previous residents or squatters weakened the rafters by removing wood to burn on cold nights.

Even with advanced technologies and training, fighting fires is dangerous.

With petroleum-based materials so commonplace in building construction and home furnishings (see your polyester-covered sofa), fires can burn hotter and faster, emitting more toxins than they did 30 years ago.

"(Until) the 1960s and '70s, they used real wood," Modesto Battalion Chief Dan Hinshaw said. Asbestos, too, which is fire retardant but has been banned because it can cause cancer.

"They'd burn at about 10,000 to 12,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units)," he said. "Now, they can burn at 20,000 to 25,000 BTUs. The same tactics that we applied 20 years ago don't work today."

Add to the equation an older home someone has remodeled, gutted or otherwise changed in a way that weakens the structure, and tragedy is only one step away.

Such was the case in February 1997, when Stockton firefighters entered a burning home to rescue the 83-year-old woman who lived there.

They understood types of construction used when the homes in the neighborhood were built in the 1920s and 1930s. What they didn't know was that the homeowner, a retired dance teacher, had added on to the home in the 1950s. The addition, done without a building permit and proper inspections, included an upstairs dance floor that was far too heavy for the walls supporting it. In the blaze's extreme heat, the walls bowed and collapsed.

Two firefighters were killed when they were crushed by the floor. Veteran firefighter Oscar Barrera was trapped beneath the dance floor but survived.

"I'm a big guy (6 foot 1 inch tall, 240 pounds)," Barrera said. "It twisted me up like a rag. There were no indicators — noise, creaking, nothing. It just came down. The next thing you know, I'm waking up. I can't understand why I can't breathe, why I'm on fire. It wasn't until I was in the hospital that people told me what had happened."

Even though the number of injuries and deaths among firefighters in this country is minuscule compared with the number of calls they respond to each year, the risk is ever present, Barrera said.

"We never know what's been done to a house," said Barrera, who returned to light duty in 1998 and to full duty 18 months after his incident. "There are unforeseen factors. We don't go in expecting somebody's cut a hole or done something to the building. We've got our sights set on rescuing somebody and putting it out. You'll run into a house like that, and it won't be until investigators go through it to find out what somebody had done to it."

And, he said, some houses will have repeated calls, and the firefighters will know what to expect when the next one comes for that address.

"The houses that look OK from the outside — those are the ones you don't know about," he said.

Barrera has visited with the Adams and Clevenger families to help them understand the recovery process they face. He's become involved with a program called Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery at the UC Medical Center's burn unit. While the program is available to any burn survivor, he works specifically with firefighters.

"To reintegrate them back into their lives, their routines and their work," he said.

Because there will be other fires to fight, in what could easily be the next "bad luck house."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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