By Dave Boyce and Kate Bradshaw | Almanac Staff Writers
A grass fire that started around 3:50 p.m. Monday at an open swampy area in eastern Menlo Park near Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue burned 13 acres and engaged firefighters from five firefighting agencies for several hours before the fire was extinguished shortly after 7 p.m., fire officials said.
Eight fire engines were on the scene from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and neighboring fire departments, including Redwood City's and Palo Alto's.
The location, a wildlife area with tall brush and spongy, soggy ground, is privately held by the Kavanaugh family. Called the Kavanaugh Tract, it is located at University Avenue and Bayfront Expressway, near the western end of the Dumbarton Bridge and within sight of Facebook's headquarters.
The flames reached 20 feet at one point. "It was pretty dramatic for a period of time," Chief Schapelhouman said. "It must have been a pretty good show for (Facebook) employees to watch."
Firefighters first reported the fire at 3:50 p.m. when it had engaged about a quarter-acre and was being driven by heavy winds. Firefighters on the scene asked dispatchers to call in a second alarm at about 4 p.m.
"We got a pretty good grass fire," a firefighter reported at 4:10. "It's reaching University with (its) four lanes. We're hoping that is a (fire) break. ... A lot of smoke. ... Hard to identify anything at this point."
The wind, at 20 mph to 25 mph, played a big role, the chief said: "It's blowing out here."
Firefighters had knocked down the fire that was near power lines. They were worried about the fire moving toward the power lines, where they couldn't get on the ground to fight it. "It's rough going to get out there," Chief Schapelhouman said in reference to the swampy ground the firefighters were working in.
The stronger than average winds on Monday also carried the embers uncomfortably close to the East Palo Alto homes across University Avenue, and the firefighters blocked off some of those streets for safety, issuing a shelter in place order for residents in the area.
The fire never endangered any structures and did not jump across any roads, but there were homeless encampments in the wildlife preserve.
The untended grass and bushes are between four feet and six feet high, high enough to hide a homeless encampment, Chief Schapelhouman said. The property owners used to mow down the area, he said, but can do so no longer due to environmental concerns.
Though there's no conclusive evidence yet of how the fire started, Chief Schapelhouman said the fire did originate near a homeless encampment at the site. Homeless people were seen running from the area, and police are interviewing them.
They are "a strong suspect" in the analysis of the cause of the fire, the chief said. At the time of the fire, there were at least three homeless encampments on the property. It is also one of several fires within the last month that has originated near a homeless encampment.
During the fire, University Avenue was shut down in both directions and authorities were asking drivers to avoid the area near the intersection with Bayfront Expressway.
There was someone known to the district with a drone on scene and shooting aerial video of the fire, the chief said. The video will be posted on the fire district's website, he said.
The fire's quick growth and strength seemed to be a surprise to some firefighters. Since most of the nearby grasses are green and the ground is fairly moist it was raining slightly during the fire it's considered a fire risk "off-season."
"In California, it's always fire season," said Division Chief Jim Stevens of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
The nearest helicopter for a water drop was stationed in Napa, since the helicopter normally assigned to the area and with the capability to drop water is in maintenance and out of service, Chief Schapelhouman said.