Residents Rally After Fire Burns Three Eichler Homes

One house was completely destroyed by the April 7 fire. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Residents of the tight-knit San Jose Eichler neighborhood that suffered a devastating fire recently have rallied to support neighbors who have lost their homes or suffered serious damage.

The April 7 fire completely destroyed the home in which it started, gutted the home next door, and caused significant damage to a third home.

The cause has not officially been determined but it was likely caused by the home’s electric breaker box, says Bill Bumgarner, whose own home suffered damage to the wall facing the fire and to the laundry room, kitchen, and roof.

Neighbors immediately comforted and took in victims of the fire, most of whom have been staying in the neighborhood since. They’ve gotten together for dinners in each others’ homes and have dined together at a favorite restaurant. Original homeowners lived in the house that was destroyed.

The fire started around 3 p.m. in one house and spread to two others. Photo by neighbor Al Boyden

“In this neighborhood, we pretty much know everybody,” says longtime owner Richard Robbins, who lives behind one of the homes that burned. The compact, 60-home  neighborhood from the early 1960s, originally called Fairhaven, is centered around Mossbrook Circle, where the fire happened. It is near Westgate Mall.

Neighbors appreciate that no one was hurt and no one died, except one parakeet. The dog that lived in the home where the fire started disappeared, but was found by Bill and reunited with its worried owners.

Residents are also gratified that the fire was not worse. A slight breeze fed the fire, Bumgarner says. A stronger breeze could have fanned it further and destroyed more homes.

The neighbors are also thanking, in their hearts, one man, or perhaps it was two, who knocked on doors alerting residents to the fire, and sprayed down a fence that separated a burning house from one that had not caught.

“If it wasn’t for this guy hosing down the fence, some random guy, [the] house could have gone up as well, and it could have skipped across the street,” says Diana Lubliner, who lives up the street and felt the heat of the fire as she stood in her doorway.

Bill Bumgarner inside his damaged kitchen. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Christine Bumgarner, Bill’s wife, was at home with her son when a man knocked. “‘There’ a fire next door,’ he said. “I looked out and there were bright red and yellow flames.”

“He saved our lives.”

Neighbors hope to identify the hero who knocked on doors and manned the hose, to provide proper thanks. They believe he was a parent or employee of nearby Moreland Middle School.

One neighbor comforted Christine and her son while their home burned, and hosed it down to prevent the fire from spreading. Although the fire damaged their kitchen, it did not destroy the glass artwork the Bumgarners had installed five years ago.

It also left intact an important document – scrapbooks documenting the neighborhood’s July 4 festivals going back decades.

The fire created a chaotic scene. “The middle school was just letting out so the neighborhood was full of kids all gawking,” Robbins says. “Then there were the lookie-loos,” who flocked from outside the immediate neighborhood.

“You could see the fire from anywhere in the valley,” Bill Bumgarner says.

The crowded streets delayed the firefighters arrival, some neighbors said, and a gas leak in the original home delayed containment.

“It was scary, to see flames shooting 30 feet in the air,” Robbins says, “with the gas, not knowing which way [the flames] are going to go.”

Bill Bumgarner credits firefighters with doing a superb job, saving his house from destruction, and even saving his parakeet by moving it to the side of his house away from the fire and closing all the doors.

Firefighters remained on the scene into the night. “At 10 p.m. they were still there, putting out hot spots, blowing foam on the fire,” Diana Lubliner says.

Several press reports blamed the design and materials used in Eichler homes – open plans whose airflow can fuel a fire, wooden panels, among other characteristics -- for allowing the fire to burn quickly.

Kids played in the neighborhood during an earlier visit by Eichler Network. Photo by David Toerge.

Eichler Network plans to follow this story in future posts, and will speak to experts in fire prevention to determine to what extent Eichler design and materials contribute to danger, and to discuss ways to safeguard your home from fire.

Two funds have been set up in the neighborhood to aid the victims. “It’s a token, to help them get going again,” Robbins says. “It’s a gesture of the neighborhood. Very typical of this place.”

“We feel insurance will take care of [the damage],” Christine Bumgarner says. “We could use that fund to do fire prevention in the neighborhood …We just want our neighbors to be safe and not to go through this again.”

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