A wind-driven fire, accidentally sparked by a plumber's soldering torch, destroyed 20 condominium units under construction Saturday morning and damaged six more nearby, many of which had been occupied within the past month.
An Anaheim firefighter, who was treated for difficulty breathing, suffered the lone injury attributed to the blaze. But eight people were displaced from five homes, at least two of which caught fire and were completely gutted, as the fire was quickly spread by winds of 15 to 20 m.p.h. and hazardous dry conditions, Red Cross and fire officials said.
Within minutes after the fire started at the 20 Summit Renaissance condos under construction off Sandstone Drive, a wall of flame moved quickly toward a row of 24 mostly inhabited units just 100 feet away, officials said.
But quick response by firefighters to the 8:45 a.m. blaze and the sudden calming of the winds when firefighters began to douse the flames prevented worse damage, said Anaheim Division Chief Steve Magliocco.
Dozens of residents evacuated as the flames bore down on their homes.
"It really scared us," said Laura Rossman, who watched from her balcony as the flames advanced toward the inhabited homes. "It went up like that. Nothing to it. It was unbelievable."
Nelson Chung, owner of the complex, estimated damage at $2 million to $3 million, including the 20 condominiums that were under construction and the others damaged by flames, heat, smoke and water. Fire officials said a preliminary estimate of the total damage was more than $2 million.
Heavy columns of black smoke and flames were visible for some distance, raising fears for many people all too familiar with the devastation of last month's wildfires in another section of Anaheim Hills and Laguna Beach. Heat from the fire was intense enough to bend steel frames on the units under construction.
Fire officials concluded that blaze was set accidentally after questioning the unidentified plumber, who told them he was working at the construction site about 8:45 a.m. when his soldering tool ignited "combustible materials," Magliocco said. Fire officials said hot residue from the soldering fell onto a pile of wood chips, which ignited, and then got down into a wall. The plumber tried but failed to extinguish the flames, they said.
The visibly distraught plumber, who remained at the site with his wife throughout the morning, refused to answer a reporter's questions.
Flames quickly consumed the 20 units under construction, and winds pushed the fire toward the row of four two-story condominium buildings about 100 feet away on Rossano Way, each of which contained six homes, Magliocco said. The occupied condominiums had opened in October.
It took about 40 firefighters from the Anaheim, Orange, Fullerton and Orange County fire departments 47 minutes to control the four-alarm fire, Magliocco said.
He said that six completed units were affected by the fire, with the damage ranging from minor to extensive.
Five of the homes in one building were so badly damaged that residents were not allowed to return, Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Emmy Day said. Four families accepted temporary shelter from the Red Cross, while others were taken in by family or friends. Day predicted that some residents could be able to return home within days, but said that four displaced residents from the two units that were totally destroyed would be unable to return for at least a month.
Most people in the units threatened by the fire had already evacuated by the time firefighters arrived, or were out of town, Magliocco said.
Resident Brian Lees, 27, whose home was damaged in the fire, said he had just awakened when he heard what sounded like a pop, as if someone had dropped something heavy. Lees said he only had time to grab his keys and wallet when he realized the units under construction behind his home were totally engulfed in flames.
"It was a gigantic fire," he said. "You could feel the heat through the windows."
Lees had bought the condo, his first, just a month ago.
"When he called me, I just burst into tears," said his mother, Judy Lees.
Paul Zimmerman also fled when he saw the inferno behind his unit, which suffered extensive smoke and water damage.
"It was so hot, my living room window broke," said Zimmerman, who had moved into his house last week. "The wind was blowing tremendously at the time."
Zimmerman was able to rescue three of his four cats. The fourth one, which survived, refused to leave a hiding place under a water bed, he said.
Chung said the cleanup effort would begin today, but was unsure how long it would take to repair the finished units and rebuild the uncompleted ones.
"This is a shame," Chung said, surveying smoldering lumber and twisted metal beams, all that remained of the unfinished units. "On the other hand, I'm thankful no one got hurt, not even the cats."
"These poor people, they just moved in," he said.
More than half the 20 units under construction, which start in price at $138,400, had already been sold, he said. The units, about 75% completed, had been set to open in January.