Recent Fire Burns Orinda House


Reese Levine and Katie Hoskins

Following the house fire at 28 El Gavilan Way on the morning of Nov. 25, questions arose about the response time of the Moraga Orinda Fire District. On Nov. 30 MOFD released a timeline of the response and a full audio recording.

The Otsmaa family owns the home, but at the time of the fire they were away and some friends were taking care of the house for them. The Otsmaa’s son, Mikk, graduated Miramonte last year and now attends Bucknell University.

At 6:36 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25, a 911-dispatch center received a call about a house fire at a residence in Orinda. Within two minutes of receiving the call, the dispatcher sent out alerts to seven vehicles recommended by the computer.

“Our goal is to be at a fire within six minutes of a completed dispatch,” Fire Chief Randall Bradley said. Engine 43, which is located at a fire station about three minutes away from the scene of the fire, did arrive on location approximately six minutes after receiving the dispatch.

Debbie Berndt’s house is next door to the one that was destroyed in the blaze, and she was the first one to report the call to the dispatch center.

“I felt really personally scared that our house was in danger,” Berndt said.

The first priority once the firefighters arrived was to make sure everyone was safely out of the house. Then they acted to protect surrounding homes. Engine 43 deployed fire attack lines, which are hand-held fire hoses, around the house.

The second engine to arrive, Engine 45, began establishing a water supply from a nearby fire hydrant. According to the timeline released by MOFD, a continuous water supply was established at 6:52 a.m. and the main hoses turned on at 6:53 a.m., 13 minutes after the original dispatch was completed and seven minutes after the first engine arrived on scene. It took firefighters several hours to extinguish the blaze.

One of the major problems firefighters faced was the narrowness of the streets in the area, making it more difficult for the fire engines to maneuver. On the audio recording, one engine can be heard saying the ladder truck would not be able make it to the fire, and later asking dispatch to send arriving engines on specific streets.

“A computer is programmed what type of equipment goes to each type of call,” Bradley said. “The computer recommended the ladder truck for this call, but the firefighters were familiar with the roads in the area. There are only a small number of houses in this district where road sizes are a problem, but we could probably still do a better job programming the computer.”

Once the fire was completely extinguished, the investigation into the cause of the fire could begin. MOFD conducted the investigation jointly with representatives from the insurance company that insured the residence.

“We weren’t able to 100 percent say what caused the fire but the probable cause was hot coals in the barbecue on the wooden deck on the first floor of the home,” Bradley said. “We eliminated all other possible sources of ignition.”

How the hot coals managed to fall out of the barbecue and onto the deck may never be known, but the investigators are almost certain that was the cause of the fire.