Amid a shower of embers from burning oaks, an heroic Tiburon battalion chief’s desperate effort helped save an historic Angel Island building that came within minutes of burning to the ground.The tale was recounted Tuesday as 150 firefighters snuffed out the last embers and investigators continued their search for a cause of the Sunday night fire that scorched 380 of the island’s 740 acres. There was no timeline for Angel Island State Park to reopen to the public.
Firefighters Sunday night and Monday morning managed to save all of the island’s 120 historic buildings, but one was nearly lost in the early hours of the blaze.
The rock crusher structure, built on the southwest side of the island with timbers in the 1930s to help develop roads for military vehicles, was in danger of being erased from the island as fire raced toward it.
Park Superintendent Dave Matthews and Tiburon fire Battalion Chief Ed Lynch, assessing which areas were most at risk, took a quick spin around the island in a truck as the fire raged just after midnight early Monday morning.
“We knew the fire was moving toward the rock crusher,” Matthews recalled, as he described the incident on the island Tuesday. “At that time the fire was going through nearby trees that were 40 to 50 feet high.”
That’s when Lynch decided to bring an engine to the site in an attempt to save the structure, which once crushed serpentine rock from an island quarry to strengthen dirt roads that were too muddy for motor vehicles.
“We knew the fire was coming and it was a matter of timing and getting an engine up there,” said Lynch, who was performing mop-up duty Tuesday.
Lynch, 46, who coordinated operations during the fire, made the call to divert Larkspur fire engine No. 615 – which was just landing at the island in a D-Day-like military vehicle mover – to the rock crusher.
“Right when we got them up there the fire was on the structure,” Lynch said.
Burning embers had landed in the middle of the wooden rock crusher, where years of dried leaves and twigs had accumulated.
“You could see the flames between the slats,” Matthews said. “It was cooking in there.”
Lynch made the decision to attack the fire as it began to close in.
“All the oaks up there were burning,” said the 28-year veteran of the department. “It was an ember shower that just rained on the entire building, and all the vegetation around us was burning.”
The structure has chutes in which the crushed rock would be sent down into the back of waiting trucks. Lynch hit on the idea to use the chutes in reverse, sending water up them into the center of the rock crusher to quell the fire.
“It was a one-shot deal,” he said. “We had one engine and 500 gallons of water. It was going to work or it wasn’t.”
Lynch and the Larkspur crew shot the water and foam mixture up a chute and onto the flames.
“We really worked the foam into the structure to stop the ember showers from burning it,” said engineer Steve Walton of the Larkspur Fire Department. “The embers landed in the foam and were extinguished. We did that in and around the building. It worked beautifully.”
The rock crusher was saved – barely.
“I think if it was another five minutes, it would have been gone,” Lynch said. “We got lucky.”
The remaining vegetation surrounding the old building was burned away by firefighters and crews spent the rest of the early-morning hours watching over the rock crusher – scorched, but still standing.
“I have been on a lot fires, but this was a big one,” Lynch said. “I grew up In Tiburon. I look at the island every day from my house. It’s nice to be able to say I helped save a piece of history.”
West Coast 911 firefighting news source – Marin Independent Journal