In his own words, Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief David Perez describes how firefighters knocked down the Da Vinci construction fire, which raged in the early morning of Monday, Dec. 8.
As Told to Eddie Kim
“When we got the call, I was asleep at Station 4. Whenever we have an incident there’s a really loud series of tones that sound through the station, and lights are immediately activated. A voice tells us the dispatch info. I was out the door in 60 seconds.
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“We got the 911 calls at about 1:20 a.m., but almost 80% of the construction site was involved by the time firefighters showed up. Station 3, which is right down the street from the site, pulled out and all they could see was fire. That was practically a minute after the calls came in. We had a firefighter who later told us he had driven by the site at around 1:05 and hadn’t seen anything.
“The first important question is, is there a rescue needed? Thankfully, there was nobody in the building, because the probability of their survival would’ve been zero.
“The next question is, what’s being exposed by this fire? We knew that we had a problem across the street on Temple; we did not know how much heat these high-rises were taking.
“One of our basic principles is to get in lines between fire and exposures. On the Temple Street side we were able to do that, and on the south end of the project. We had driven around that building plenty of times before, and we knew that if that site ever caught fire, we were not going to be able to put people on Fremont Street. That would be the collapse zone, and the trees on both sides of Fremont create a tunnel, so we wouldn’t be able to drive in and raise a ladder.
“So our firefighters were attacking it from north to south and south to north, and as soon as we could, we put companies on the Harbor Freeway and attacked it from west to east.
“Exposed lumber framing is probably the most flammable configuration of fuel you can have. Truckloads of lumber in pallets on top of each other — that’s not gonna burn quick. If you frame it up like on the site, you get one piece to burn and the entire thing will burn so quick. It’s just like kindling.
“But it was over pretty fast. We were able to flow massive quantities of water onto this because of the sheer amount of resources. The other thing was, as that fire continued to burn, it was killing its fuel. As long as we kept it from crossing the street, it was dying on its own.
“We didn’t use any special technology. This was absolute old-school firefighting. A huge lumber fire only responds to huge amounts of water. We would’ve fought it the same way 50 or 60 years ago.
“We knew early on that we needed to put firefighters inside Figueroa Plaza and other nearby buildings. My initial thought was to get people inside the buildings so they could do an assessment on smoke and heat detectors. Everything was in normal status except for the 221 North Figueroa towers. I didn’t realize they were catching fire, and that was happening right as firefighters were going in to check. But we weren’t worried about people in the buildings, which was security staff that had evacuated to the lobby. As bad as it looked, 221 Fig took mostly water damage from the sprinklers.
“The damage to the DWP building was a surprise. I’m still not sure how the building sustained so much heat. It had 160 broken windows. We didn’t even know about that damage until the next morning.
“The only thing that points to human involvement is the size of the fire based on how quickly it appears to have occurred. Had this been a smoldering fire that slowly started to build up, someone would’ve called us earlier, with all the people still driving on the freeway.
“This fire went from zero to almost complete involvement of a two-block building in a matter of moments. Unless a fire was cooking somewhere in the basement or a place where nobody could see it, and it burst up quickly, I don’t know. Whether or not it’s arson remains to be seen.
“I’ve heard people call it a ‘career fire,’ which implies that you see one of these in your career. It’s interesting — I was talking to a senior firefighter, and he said he used to go to these all the time some decades ago in the Valley on construction sites. Better enforcement of fire codes and better-written codes have helped reduce big fires a lot. With the advent of cell phones and automatic alarms, we get notified much earlier.
“It doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever seen in initial size and intensity. It’s by far the biggest single fire in an urban area I’ve seen.
“I’ve visited the fire stations in my battalion to tell them I was impressed. This still gets me a little choked up. They took a lot of heat but they stayed right there fighting the fire. The thing that gets to me the most is the dedication and professionalism of these firefighters.”