Neighbors Talk Safety After Condo Fire

Flames erupt on the balcony of a third floor condo in Laguna Heights. Fast action by firefighters squelched the fire within minutes. Fire photos by Colleen Mullins

Like all of us, artist Colleen Mullins has been spending a lot of time home these days during the COVID-19 shelter in place. One of her activities has been taking photographs from her home in Laguna Heights, a charming neighborhood of Eichler cooperative apartments and condos in San Francisco.

On July 27 she took more photos, as usual, as a fire ripped through a condo unit across from her home. No one was injured in the fire, which primarily affected to one top, third-floor condo unit.

Thomas Huster, who was home with his family when the fire started on their balcony, said the fire damaged the balcony and a portion of the living area, but it did not spread into the entire unit. It also caused smoke damage.

Several neighboring condo units also suffered some damage, he said, but did not yet know the extent of the damage.

Fire from Colleen
Colleen Mullins, who grew up in the Laguna Heights cooperative, photographed the fire from a landing next to her home.

"My wife was cooking on the balcony," he said, when asked about the cause.

“The San Francisco fire department was excellent,” he said.

At least one condo below the fire suffered some water damage, and other units may have been damaged by water or smoke, said Mullins, based on her observations. “I could see there was water leaking into the apartment downstairs because people put out buckets,” she said.

Mullins, who is on the board of the association for the Eichler cooperatives, said the fire was a wakeup call to pay attention to fire prevention. “We are, of course, vigorously re-looking at everything that deals with fire safety,” she says.

The fire started at about 5:30 p.m.

The low-rise condos and cooperative of Laguna Heights features mature landscaping designed by the famed firm Sasaki Walker. Neighborhood photos by Dave Weinstein

Mullins too praised the fire department. “Their arrival was so speedy. I took my first picture at 5:36, and at 5:41 the fire was out.” Firefighters remained on scene at least until 8 p.m.

“The Fire Department was amazing,” Mullins said. “They did a very thorough job of pulling away all combustible material on the exterior. They used a chain saw on the eaves to make sure nothing was smoldering. They removed the debris and put large sheets of plastic in the interior to protect it.”

“The firefighters entered the building through the back and brought in a hose,” Mullins said. “They shot water at the fire from inside. You could see the power of the water as it went shooting out the windows.”

From above
One of the low-rise buildings is seen from the Eichler high-rise residence that is also part of the neighborhood.

Other firefighters used ladders to reach the roof to check for fire or damage there.

“They were balletic, they were so impressive. Eight to ten of them were really working hard to make sure it was OK,” Mullins said.

Mullins said she heard about the fire before she saw it. “I heard a guy yelling on the street, trying to stop people. People were running and screaming, ‘Fire!’” Neighbors gathered at a fountain just up from the burning building to watch, Mullins said.

The Laguna Heights homes were built in 1962 and 1963 as part of the redevelopment of the city’s Western Addition. They are just down the hill from the landmark St. Mary’s Cathedral, designed by architect Pietro Belluschi.

Firefighters remained on site for hours, mopping up, checking for hot spots, and placing plastic tarp inside the damaged unit for protection. Neighbors kept watch and have applauded the response.

The low-rise condos and co-ops of Laguna Heights consists of six buildings arrayed in lovely landscaping designed by the modernist firm Sasaki Walker. Five of the buildings are part of a cooperative community. The sixth, at 1280 Ellis Street, where the fire took place, is a separately run condominium.

Along with the low-rises of Laguna Heights, Eichler also built the high-rise 66 Cleary Court as part of the same project.

This was not the first fire to hit Laguna Heights. Mullins recalled a fire in her building, circa 1971, when she was a young girl. “I believe it was a defective TV, a set that had been repaired. The fire traveled down, surprisingly,” she said. “The apartment had to be taken down to its studs.”

About a decade ago, she said, a fire at another of the buildings resulted in a death.

Coincidentally, a meeting had been scheduled the night after the fire for a working group of the cooperative association board. “I brought it up that we want to vigorously look at things” concerning fire safety, Mullins said. She said that will be done.

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