An investigative panel concluded the Modesto Fire Department acted appropriately tackling a house fire in January at which two firefighters were seriously injured when a roof collapsed underneath them.
The report, disclosed Tuesday, suggested ways the department can improve its practices to prevent a similar accident and decrease the severity of injuries, such as requiring firefighters to wear a certain type of protective gear and using alternatives to cool fires when roofs are unsafe.
Firefighter Jason Clevenger received third-degree burns over 10 percent of his body in the accident. He returned to duty March 22 after spending 17 days in the hospital, including time in the burn unit at the University of California Medical Center in Sacramento.
Engineer James Adams suffered third-degree burns over 45 percent of his body and spent 53 days in the hospital before being released in April. He remains at home, rehabilitating.
The extent of the men's injuries prompted the Fire Department to seek outside help in reviewing the incident. It's the first time in the department's history that it assembled such a panel instead of relying on an internal investigation.
"We wanted to take an outside look at this and see what we can learn from it," acting Fire Chief Mike Kraus said.
The fire occurred late Jan. 1 at a single-story house in the 2300 block of Coston Avenue, east of Prescott Road in north Modesto. Clevenger and Adams were on top of the house, getting ready to cut a hole in the garage's roof to release heat and smoke, when the roof caved in.
Fire officials said the protective gear both men were wearing saved their lives.
The panel, however, said a missing small flap of protective material would've prevented burns to the back of the head and ears.
Kraus said Clevenger and Adams were not wearing the protective flap, like most others at the department, and it contributed to the severity of their burns. All firefighters are now wearing the flap, which hangs from the back of the helmet for an additional layer of protection.
"I think it might have been a false sense of security with the fire retardant hoods (they wear around their heads, inside their helmets)," Kraus said. "I can ensure you they're being used regularly now."
Construction was a surprise
The multiagency panel's largest area of concern was the roof. Clevenger and Adams were cutting a hole in the roof to ventilate the fire and reduce its intensity. It's a common procedure.
The garage's interior had an exposed roof construction and did not have drywall covering the structural beams. Kraus said the drywall was not there to stop the flames from eroding the structure.
He said the department will do its best, through inspections, to determine whether this type of roof construction is in homes before they're called to a fire.
If the interior roof is exposed, Kraus said firefighters will try to ventilate the fire from the ground by breaking windows or tearing down doors.
When possible, the firefighters are to get a look around the entire structure before launching an attack on the blaze. A better understanding of the building's construction could prevent a similar accident, the panel concluded.
Some of the recommendations were based on interviews with firefighters who responded to the blaze. Kraus said the firefighters perceived this as "just another garage fire" before arriving.
"It's what we call 'the bread and butter syndrome,' " Kraus said. "We're working to eradicate that and take each fire as its own incident with its own dangers."
The department is reassigning personnel to beef up its training division in accordance with the panel's recommendation. Kraus said budget cuts have limited personnel and resources, but the department is working through that to make training a priority — second only to emergency response.
The panel included representatives from fire agencies in Oakdale, Sacramento, Fresno and Alameda County, and two Modesto fire captains.
The six-month investigation was preceded by a state review of occupational laws, which also found no wrongdoing by the department.
Fire officials said there are some obvious lessons to be learned by residents.
The fire started when a woman living in the house dropped a candle next to a gas-powered generator used to power the home.
The report indicates the woman was using the candle to light the dark garage as she refueled the generator. She told investigators there were five gallons of gasoline in a plastic container near the generator.
The woman and her two children escaped unharmed. No citations were given, and no criminal charges were filed.
Modesto Fire Marshal Mike Payton urged residents not to use a generator and, more importantly, to use a flashlight instead of a candle to light your way to a generator.
"We're seeing this a lot more often with the bad economy ... and residents are resorting to other methods to power their homes," Payton said. "The electrical hookup is not sufficient (to maintain power in a home), and you could cause an electrical fire."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.