Promontory Point fire may have been electrical; manual fire alarms didn’t work, residents tell fire marshal

A firefighter scales an engine ladder to get to the top floor apartments and attic area involved in Sunday's blaze.
An investigation to determine the cause and origin of a four-alarm fire Sunday at the Promontory Point apartment complex in Newport Beach is underway. The tenant whose apartment was “gutted” says she was told the fire was electrical in origin.
(Susan Hoffman)

An investigation continues this week into the cause and origin of a four-alarm fire that damaged four units at the Promontory Point apartment complex in Newport Beach and injured two firefighters Sunday morning, according to Newport Beach Fire Department officials.

Natalie May, fire services coordinator for the department, said in a written statement the call reporting the fire was first received at 10:30 a.m.

“It was upgraded to a two-alarm and then a three-alarm by 11:04 a.m.,” May wrote. “The fire started in a single [apartment] and worked its way up into the common attic area and started to make its way through a few units, causing fire extinguishment efforts to be difficult.”

She noted due to the day’s high temperatures and humidity levels brought by Tropical Storm Kay, the firefighters were struggling to keep cool. As a result, the call was upgraded to a four-alarm fire at 11:44 a.m. to pull in additional firefighters from nearby communities. May estimated that 24 units and 65 personnel were on the scene battling the fire, which was knocked down at 12:16 p.m. Sunday.

Firefighters on scene at Promontory Point apartment complex fire.
Firefighters on scene at Promontory Point blaze that broke out at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Two firefighters were treated at a hospital for heat-related injuries.
(Susan Hoffman)

Senicia Burke, the tenant of 461 Promontory Drive West, said in an interview the fire started in her apartment, which she shares with her daughter, while she was at the grocery store.

“My whole house is gone,” Burke said. “The Newport Beach fire marshal told me that foul play had been ruled out and that it was an electrical fire that started in the kitchen.”

Burke, who saw the smoke billowing into the sky as she left the market to head home, said that to her knowledge nothing had ignited in her unit. She also noted the smoke alarm delayed in going off and there were no overhead fire suppression sprinklers in the unit.

Smoke billows from top floor of a building at the Promontory Point apartment complex Sunday.
Smoke billowing from the fire at the Promontory Point apartment complex Sunday caught the eye of the tenant whose home was ablaze. She was driving home from a trip to the grocery store when the fire broke out.
(Susan Hoffman)

“My home is burnt down, and there is nothing left,” Burke said. “I do believe in my heart it was from construction a few months ago that was done, due to mold, and had caused water leaking in sunroofs and windows. Mine was the only unit where we had to move out when water came through the walls during the rain. And the fire yesterday started in the walls.”

“I’m emotional and don’t know where to start. I’ll move on, and we are safe,” she said.

In a prepared statement issued by the Irvine Co. Wednesday, Edward V. Carbajal, general manager of Promontory Point Apartment Villas, said, “We are fully supporting the Newport Beach Fire Department in its review of the incident and are conducting our own internal review to understand the cause of the fire and the efficacy of the Community’s fire safety procedures.

“We are extremely grateful for all the emergency safety personnel who responded to the fire to protect residents and the property,” Carbajal concluded.

Christine Fugate, who lives two doors down from the apartment where the fire started, said she didn’t hear any fire alarms go off in her building. She said strangers passing by saw smoke and called the fire department.

“A family driving by hit their horn and screamed, ‘Get out, get out,’” Fugate said, adding it was the noise they made that allowed her to escape to safety.

“I’m so upset, no fire alarms, I’m still shaking,” Fugate said. “People who don’t even live here called [911]. I’m really scared.”

Since 2007, state fire code has required structures with two or more dwelling units, such as apartments, to have indoor automatic sprinkler systems, according to NBFD Life Safety Specialist James Gillespie, who is also a professor of fire technology at San Diego Miramar College.

Firefighters at the apartment complex Sunday.
Due to heat and humidity units from other fire departments were called in to help the Newport Beach Fire Department fight the Promontory Point apartment complex blaze Sunday.
(Susan Hoffman)

Promontory Points’ building permits were issued in the 1970s, when sprinklers were not required.

“The apartment complex is protected with stand pipes with preconnected hoses in cabinets,” said Kevin Bass, Newport Beach Fire Department’s fire marshal. “Although fire sprinklers are now required for [individual] apartments, this project is ‘grandfathered’ since it was built in conformance to code at the time of construction.

“There are fire sprinklers in various areas within the apartment complex, including sprinkler coverage for some patios, in parking garages, the leasing office, etc.,” Bass said. “But fire sprinklers do not uniformly protect this apartment complex.”

Bass noted there are smoke alarms inside all of the apartments at Promontory Point.

“These smoke alarms are designed to notify the residents of smoke within their individual dwelling unit, but they do not send out a signal to warn other residents nor dispatch an emergency response,” he said. “At the time of construction, fire detection systems were required to notify the occupants of smoke, and the existing individual smoke alarms comply with this standard.”

Bass said some of the Promontory Point units are also protected with smoke detectors that send a signal to a fire alarm panel, which in turn relays the signal to dispatch emergency responders. The apartment units affected by Sunday’s fire had been equipped with both individual smoke alarms and smoke detectors.

“My office has received several reports that the fire alarm system was not functioning when the manual pull stations were activated,” the fire marshal said. “I will follow up with the investigator assigned to this incident to determine if the fire alarm system was operating.”

According to May, the fire services coordinator, the two firefighters who were transported to a hospital for heat-related treatment Sunday have since been released.

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1:47 p.m. Sept. 14, 2022: This story has been updated to include a prepared statement provided Wednesday by the general manager of the Promontory Point complex, Edward V. Carbajal.