LOCAL L.A. Now

World War II Purple Heart recipient dies in L.A. house fire

Francisco Hernandez was a fiercely independent man, refusing help from family and neighbors -- even firing Meals on Wheels -- as he moved into old age at his Mt. Washington home.

So it's not surprising that the 89-year-old World War II Purple Heart recipient was home alone with his bulldog, Nero, when a fire late Friday tore through the tiny cottage he's lived in for the last 40 years.

Hernandez's body was found Saturday among the charred remains of the structure that sits on a winding, narrow street in the 500 block of West Avenue 44. His dog survived the fire.

Hernandez's niece Maya Hoo, who checked in on her uncle every day, fought tears as she described Hernandez, whom family members called Kiko.

"He was an adventurer and was full of life,'' Hoo said. "He still walked those steep hills near his house twice a week. My uncle was my hero."

Firefighters were called to the home at 9:48 p.m., said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Erik Scott. The 625-square-foot home was fully engulfed by the time crews arrived, with embers threatening to ignite nearby homes and vegetation, he said.

Water-dropping helicopter crews were called in to assist in fighting the inferno and it was extinguished in about 40 minutes, Scott said. No other structures were damaged, he said. Investigators found "excessive" personal belongings stacked throughout the house but haven't yet determined a cause, he said.

"We encourage people not to have excessive storage or pack-rat-like conditions that can prevent rapid egress of the occupants as well as potentially create hazards and challenges for responding firefighters,'' he said.

Investigators are also looking into whether Hernandez had a working smoke alarm. In the last two months, at least eight civilian fire fatalities in Los Angeles have occurred in residences with no functioning smoke detector, Scott said.

"That is an extremly high number of fatalities in a short amount of time,'' he said.

Hoo said she'd brought up a smoke alarm with her uncle but that he refused to install one. He didn't see the point of solar lighting that she installed on his walkway, the niece said, and protested when she ordered Meals on Wheels for him.

He promptly dismissed the workers, she said.

"He said: 'That's for people who need that. I don't need that,''' Hoo recalled. "He was a tough old guy who really thought he was invincible."

Her uncle took part in the Normanday invasion in World War II, hunkering in a foxhole for a week after coming ashore, she said. He was awarded a Purple Heart for a gunshot wound to his leg, she said.

After the war, he worked as an assembler in an aircraft plant and bought a home in Boyle Heights for his parents, Hoo said. Her uncle moved to the Mount Washington house four decades ago, she said.

He loved Volkswagens and pitbulls, and never married, she said. About two years ago, he started showing signs of dementia but refused to move or allow helpers into the house, she said.

"I was trying to get him into assisted living,'' she said. "He wouldn’t listen to me so the only thing I could do was bring him food and make sure he was OK every day."

The Fire Department is offering free smoke alarms while supplies last, Scott said. They are available at Los Angeles City Fire Station No. 12, 5921 N. Figueroa Street, he said.

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Twitter: @csaillant2 | Google+

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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