House fire in Fairfax could have spread and caused major damage to wildland area, chief says

Marin County may have dodged a disaster Sunday night with a house fire that spread into wildland.  

The home was high on a ridge in Fairfax, reachable by narrow roads, in proximity to hundreds of other vulnerable homes.

The only missing ingredient was wind. 

"If this fire had occurred in October, with a little bit of wind on it, the results would have been very different," Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber told KTVU. 

The two-alarm fire, at 35 Crest Road, destroyed the three-bedroom house.  

Arriving firefighters found the two men who live in the home already outside and uninjured. 

The priority was to halt the fire's spread, with San Anselmo a half mile beyond the ridge and thousands of people living below Crest Road. 

Weber, who is also Chief of the Ross Valley Fire Dept., encountered many alarmed residents on his way up the hill to the fire. 

"Many were packing their cars to leave, or just fearful of what was going to occur," said Weber, noting that officials issued an alert about the fire but did not order evacuations. 

People fled regardless. 

"I think next time going on foot might be the better choice," said neighbor Anke Osterburg, who heard a crackling noise about 11 p.m. and looked outside.  

"I saw huge flames and I was just yelling, 'everybody out, fire!' and banging on my neighbor's doors."

Osterburg left her doors open for her cat, and drove away, but found her escape blocked by other residents and fire vehicles. 

"We were shaking, driving down the hill in panic and other people were too," said Osterburg, "so it was a mess, gridlock with trucks trying to come up and people trying to go down, it was crazy."

Chief Weber advises in neighborhoods where roads are tight, consider evacuation by foot or bicycle as an alternative to a car. 

"It was challenging, and I think our engine companies witnessed multiple people hitting other cars, trying to get out of the way. It was a chaotic event." 

And an event to learn from- says the chief- because many people still haven't enrolled in alerts, created an evacuation plan, hardened their property against fire, and created defensible space.  

"I think the fear level is high, but the education level is lower, and our job is to bridge that gap," said Weber.  

The neighbor nearest the fire shot dramatic cell phone video from his driveway after he called 911. 

"I was also trying to spray the trees in between us, because there were embers flying up," said Izzy Borenstein. 

He was impressed that a dozen fire vehicles managed to squeeze into such a small area, and stage an attack. 

As the house sat in ruins, he said he had spoken briefly to the homeowner Monday. 

"I went over to tell him I was sorry for what had happened and what he's going through, and he said he felt sorry for  posing a threat to the neighborhood, because he was worried it was going to spread."

Chief Weber says such worry is warranted, after the devastating experiences in other communities, and other counties.  

He would like to see residents channel anxiety into action. 

"We don't want to be one those ones who looks back and says I wish we would have," said Weber," and what we do today can prevent something from occurring tomorrow." 

The fire appears to be accidental- possibly a curtain left too close to a lamp. 

In Marin County, Fire Safe Marin offers fire prevention information on its website and Alert Marin is the emergency notification system run by the Sheriff's Office.