Red-flag week saw hotel and brush fires

David Briggs
The 22-room Olema House evacuated all its guests last Friday after a chimney fire spread to the attic and walls at around 11 p.m. Firefighters from Marin County and Inverness and Bolinas Volunteer Fire Departments worked for hours to put out the blaze and mop up water. It was a hectic week in West Marin, with the county's largest fire of the year, in Muir Beach, and the power outage.  
10/30/2019

With smoke from the Kincade Fire in the northern sky, West Marin firefighters contended with a pair of local fires this week: an escaped chimney fire at the Olema House hotel and a brush fire north of Muir Beach—the largest fire in Marin this year.

The Muir Fire of Oct. 24 burned 58 acres of an oceanside hill along Highway 1 about two miles north of Muir Beach. Although its cause is undetermined, it originated along the highway and away from electrical equipment.

After a hiker reported the fire at 10:45 a.m., dispatch initiated a full effort, with around 150 personnel from 15 agencies devoted to containing the blaze. By the time the first units arrived, the fire had spread to both sides of the highway. With low relative humidity, 20-mile per hour winds and dry fire fuels, conditions were ripe for rapid fire growth. 

But the topography of the burn zone combined with winds blowing toward the ocean fell in firefighters' favor: the fire burned thick grass and brush to the edge of the cliff, and the offshore winds kept it from spreading inland.

Nearby Slide Ranch was evacuated. Employees loaded goats, sheep, ducks and chickens into the back of their cars, and chaperones drove home fourth and fifth graders from Lagunitas School on the grounds for an overnight field trip.

Stinson Beach School was evacuated, with students from kindergarten to second grade bussed to Bolinas. “It went really smoothly,” said John Carroll, superintendent of both the Lagunitas and Bolinas-Stinson Union School Districts.

Air tankers and a helicopter doused the flames on and off for three hours, fully containing the fire by around 6 p.m. “All things considered, it was very seamless,” said Bret McTigue, a battalion chief for Marin County Fire. “We can’t ask for a better situation with the wind-driven conditions we had. The location gave us a fighting chance.”

The next day, inmate hand crews cleaning a dense area between the road and the ocean discovered huma skeletal remains. “We don’t believe they were related to the fire in any way, shape or form,” said Roger Fielding, the chief deputy coroner for Marin. His office canvassed the area and collected about two-thirds of a body, whose charred remains were spread across four spots and intermingled with animal bones. 

Although Mr. Fielding could not estimate how long the remains had been there, he ruled out a historical burial, and any other clues would have burned in the fire. The bones will be sent to a human identification lab at Chico State University, and the coroner’s office will work with the United States Department of Justice missing persons unit to try and find a DNA match. “This could be quite a lengthy research project, but we’re hoping to get this person eventually identified,” Mr. Fielding said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

On Friday night, another fire started at the Olema House hotel, formerly the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge. The blaze was reported by the hotel’s alarm system and several 911 calls just after 11 p.m. 

Crews from Marin County Fire and volunteer departments in Inverness, Bolinas and Stinson Beach responded. Because of the red flag warning, three additional firefighters were stationed at the Point Reyes Station station. “We had a substantial amount of resources contributing right off the bat, and that’s what really contributed to the save here,” Mr. McTigue said. 

When firefighters arrived, heavy smoke was billowing out of the roof and hotel guests were evacuating. Firefighters fought the fire from the lobby while others used ladders to access the burning attic from above; they disassembled parts of the sheetrock chimney and broke their way into the rafters. The fire was controlled by 1 a.m. on Saturday morning.

A preliminary investigation shows the fire began after a guest added fuel to a fireplace, igniting unburnt matter in the chimney, Mr. McTigue said. The building sustained significant fire and water damage in four rooms and the lobby, lounge and attic.

The two local fires this week paled in comparison with the Kincade Fire, which has burned more than 75,000 acres and destroyed 124 structures after igniting last Wednesday. The fire has garnered a response across the state from 4,548 firefighters, with 93 coming from Marin. Volunteers from Stinson Beach and Bolinas spent Sunday night defending a house near Windsor from a rapidly shifting blaze. “We learned an incredible amount, and I think we’re all still processing it,” said Will Mitchell, a firefighter for Stinson Beach. “It was just a very surreal
experience.”