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Morgan Hill
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August 7, 2020

Fire victims begin rebuilding

More than 20 residents displaced by the July 25 fire that rapidly spread through a San Martin neighborhood have a variety of local resources from which to obtain long-term and immediate assistance until they are able to start rebuilding or find new permanent homes.

Members of several families whose homes burned in the blaze, which started as a vegetation fire, attended a July 26 community meeting at the San Martin Lions Club to gain more information about such resources. The leaders of Santa Clara County organizations in attendance—including CalFire, Social Services Agency, Office of Emergency Services and American Red Cross—urged the impacted residents in attendance to spread information about available help to their neighbors through word of mouth.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire—which destroyed a residential duplex, a mobile home, 16 vehicles and three barns—displaced residents are eligible for pre-loaded $100 gift or debit cards to purchase essential items. These cards are funded and provided by the American Red Cross and the California Fire Foundation.

Two other homes were damaged, but not fully destroyed by the fire, CalFire Santa Clara Unit Fire Chief Derek Witmer said at the July 26 meeting. A total of 21 residents were displaced from the damaged and destroyed homes.

Longer-term assistance is available from local nonprofits the Gilroy Compassion Center and St. Joseph’s Family Center, as well as the Red Cross. Displaced fire victims who are citizens of Mexico can contact the Mexican Consulate’s office in San Jose.

Insured renters and property owners can obtain CalFire’s “fire report” to provide to their insurance companies starting about 10 days after the incident, Witmer said.

The July 25 fire began about 4:15pm in the area of the 12100 block of Church Avenue in south San Martin. Due to the dry conditions, and sustained winds of 20mph, fire officials said the blaze quickly spread through about 20 acres of vegetation and onto a ranch on Lena Avenue. While numerous horses, goats, pets and livestock were saved from the fire, at least one goat died in the flames, Witmer said.

Other displaced residents said they have been unable to locate some of their animals since the fire was extinguished.

A firefighter at the scene suffered heat exhaustion, Witmer said. No other injuries were reported.

Mirna Arriaga, a resident of Lena Avenue whose home was one of those damaged by the blaze, said when the fire started it looked like a “brush fire.” She called 911, then went back inside her home to watch television.

Just a couple minutes later, Arriaga received a phone call saying her neighbor’s house was on fire.

“We went back out and couldn’t see three feet in front of us,” due to the smoke, she said. Arriaga and her family had to jump in their car and retreat; they didn’t have time to gather any clothing or other possessions from inside the home.  

Arriaga lived in the home with her husband, Jose Orozco, and their four children, who range in age from 6 to 22. Arriaga’s father, Raul Arriaga, owns and lives on the property as well.

Orozco said while the home was not completely demolished by the fire, it is “not repairable.” Arriaga said she entered the heavily smoke-damaged residence the next day, but the odor makes her nauseous. The family spent the night July 25 in their RV, parked in a nearby commercial parking lot. 

Cause still undetermined

Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the July 25 fire, Witmer said. He noted the windy conditions were the key factor in the blaze’s quick spread. The first CalFire units on the scene ordered five engines “right off the bat.” A CalFire helicopter—which doused the blaze with water pulled from a nearby reservoir—and airplane appeared within minutes.

Several bulldozers also responded, Witmer said. Units from Gilroy and San Jose fire departments assisted.

A resident at the July 26 meeting asked Witmer if a locked fence surrounding a property owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District impeded firefighters’ response when they arrived to the emergency. Witmer said fire crews carry enough tools to break down or cut through almost any kind of barrier.

With the water district property, which is adjacent to the Lena Avenue ranch to the north, Witmer said it took firefighters about one minute to use tools to cut through the locked fence and proceed along the service road. He said a delay of that length wasn’t enough to make a significant difference in the amount of property damage.

Chaotic, windy scene

The rapidly spreading fire created a chaotic scene for those who lived in the area of the blaze the afternoon of July 25.

Mike Sibley, 71, who rents a trailer on the Lena Avenue property, said he received a call from the owner of the house warning him of the fire. Sibley rushed back from a bar in Morgan Hill, where he had been hanging out with friends. He said he at times drove on the wrong side of the road to get to the fire several miles south.

Sibley said he arrived in time to rush into the mobile home he has been renting for about eight years and save his 20-year-old dog, Oddie, and some valuables.

He left his vehicle in front and headed to the scene of chaos.

“There was three or four cars on fire and I probably would have lost mine if I went back there,” Sibley said.

He also managed to lead out a kid goat.

“There were about 30 goats in there and that was the only one who wanted to follow me out,” he said. “The firefighters out here are doing an amazing job.”

Sibley did however lose several personal items when another of the buildings on the property burned.

About 7pm, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies cleared onlooking pedestrians away from in front of the house on Lena Avenue and moved them back to Manna Way after an electric pole caught on fire and threatened their safety.

A gray pit bull was picked up by animal control in the area, firefighters said.

The fire was mostly contained before dusk July 25, but crews remained in the area through the following evening to mop up and keep an eye on any potential hotspots.

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• St. Joseph’s Family Center, 7950 Church St., Suite A, Gilroy, (408) 842-6662.

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• Gilroy Compassion Center, 370 Tompkins court, Gilroy, (408) 763-7120.

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• Mexican Consulate, 301 Enzo Suite #200, San Jose, (408) 294-3415.

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• American Red Cross, (408) 577-2054.

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• Residents who need a fire report for insurance purposes can call CalFire at (408) 779-2121. Fire reports are typically available from the firefighting agency starting 10 days after the fire.
 

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